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Doing International Field Research Successfully

As we all know, field research is essential to understand your customer, their environment, and generate relevant design opportunities. It also takes a huge amount of time, can be expensive and if you’re doing it internationally, it may be the only shot you have so you’d better get it right. In this post we break down the research phases and share some tips and lessons we’ve learned in our experience.

1. Planning

Like any research project, you have to figure out your goals, methods, timelines, etc in the planning stage. International research adds some complexity to this as: 1) You may not be familiar with the environment or culture at all & 2) You’re in field for a very limited amount of time and likely won’t get the opportunity to go back. So, what do you do? Find out as much as you can, about everything you can, before you go.

The local agency you partner with to arrange participant recruiting is a great resource for local knowledge, but they likely won’t provide their opinion or advice unless asked.

Ask them for advice on how to build rapport with participants: is a quick introduction ok or is it better to have a quick bite together first? You’ll need to build this time into your session.

What are the topics you should be careful about? For example, when I was doing research in India, we asked female head of households their income and spending when their husbands weren’t around, as those females that earned more than their husbands would under report their income and spending when their husbands were there as not to embarrass them.

How many people can comfortably attend the research? If you are doing research in someone’s home for example, their living quarters can be really small, so you may only have room for yourself and the translator. It is good to know this upfront so you can plan sessions ahead that other team members can attend.

Other areas to ask questions about include: safety, session lengths, cultural norms and greetings, whether it is appropriate to video record the sessions , etc.

Once you’ve settled on your recruiting criteria, with the local agency’s input of course (!), recruit participants early and start collecting data remotely. This is extremely important for a few reasons. You’ll find out early if you are going to run into recruiting glitches and will have time to plan accordingly. On one project, we were doing research in schools in China and it took 3 weeks to connect with the schools’ principal to get permission to observe and interview her teachers.

Ask participants to fill out workbooks and take pictures of their lives and have these sent to you weeks before you are in field. With this data, you can ensure you are getting participants that meet your criteria and nothing was lost in translation with your local recruiting agency. You can also use this as a method to narrow down participants; choosing the ones that were most responsive or descriptive, for example, using this as a predictor to get the most fruitful participants in field.

This data early on can also help you focus your discussion while you are in field; you can use the collected data as jumping off points for new conversation topics, or alternatively, you can leave out certain topics as you have already collected enough beforehand.

Lastly, this data can also result in rich artifacts. Pictures of important friends and family members you may not get to meet while in field serve as powerful ways to illustrate a participant’s life, while a few sentences about their life goals in their own handwriting adds authenticity to your story telling.

2. Lessons from the field

You’re now in field half way across the world, have jet lag, don’t speak the language, and are planning to conduct intense and fantastic research over the next few weeks. What do you do?

Tip #1: Plan 1-2 buffer days. Lesson from India.

[tweetmeme]First, get some sleep. Plan 1-2 buffer days between arriving in field and starting the research to deal with jetlag, possible travel delays, and most importantly, to iron out kinks. Meet your local agency as soon as you can and plan to spend a half day with them. Build some rapport, perhaps over a cup of tea. Your success is highly dependent on your working relationship with them. Go over the schedule, participants, discussion guides, and get all of your contact phone numbers. Don’t forget the driver’s number. In my experience, this is one of the biggest ways to throw off the schedule: a misunderstanding about the meeting time.

If you are doing research at a facility, go there and ensure everything works. I once did a concept evaluation in India and when we went to the facility to check it out, we found out the audio didn’t feed into the observation room. After hours of a technician trying to fix it, we gave up and had to book another facility last minute. It meant that we lost our first participant, but at least we got data for all the rest.

Tip #2: Schedule a pilot. Lesson from China.

An absolute must: Schedule a pilot (read: extra, possible throw-away, data). I cannot stress the importance of this enough. During a pilot in China, I found out: my video recorder ran out of battery half way through a session, the order of the discussion was unnatural, and there was way more traffic than we anticipated so we had to eat lunch while in the car to save time.

Having a pilot will also give you a chance to test out the translator. It seems simple, but getting a good translator is one of the big challenges with international research. First, you have to decide whether you want simultaneous or consecutive translation. I prefer simultaneous because it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the conversation and thought process of the participant, and doesn’t eat up session time like consecutive does. But, beware: getting a really good simultaneous translator is really hard in some places and it is usually a lot more expensive. Stress the importance of getting a ‘UN quality’ translator to your local agency and ask them to prepare a backup in case you are not satisfied with the one they provided after using them in the pilot.

Tip #3 : Explore the environment. Lesson from South Africa.

Schedule an afternoon to explore the environment with your driver and local research expert early during your time in field. This will help you understand your participants’ lives and put what they say into context. It will also instigate discussion and questions for the local expert that you couldn’t have known were relevant to you. For example: On a project in South Africa, we were investigating financial transactions and planned to spend time at people’s homes, banks and at the shopping plazas. From exploring some neighborhoods, we noticed a lot of neighborhood pubs. Inquiring about them further and going inside revealed that there were a lot of transactions taking place in there as well; not only for alcohol but also cell phone airtime, cigarettes, and snacks. This discovery led to a few late addition interviews with pub owners and resulted in some really fruitful data.

Tip #4: Be organized about your artifact collection. Lesson from the Philippines.

My last tip for a successful time in field: be organized about the artifacts you collect. It is really easy to take a ton of pictures, video, brochures, etc and end up with an overwhelming mess when you start data analysis. Figure out what’s important to you and write a list to make sure you capture all of those things consistently across sessions. Review this list after the pilot. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself only taking photos of unique things over time, like a pet goat, but when you come back you’ll have pictures like this and not enough good exterior home shots, for example. Yes, the pet goat thing really happened to me in the Philippines, one of my first international research projects.

During your time doing international research, you will not only grow your skills as a researcher, but you might also become a scheduler, technician, videographer, photographer, project manager, lunch maker, charades expert, and a plethora of other things. I hope my tips and experiences will leave you a little more successful in whichever of these professions you fall into while in field!

3. Organizing and Analyzing Data

You are now back home from your international research trip and are ready to begin the daunting task of organizing and analyzing the data. Stop! Back up! You could do this, but there’s a better way. Instead, start organizing and analyzing while you are in field. Ideally, I like to set aside 2 afternoons for this; half way through the research and close to the end.

Tip #1: Create a data organization scheme in field

Your time is first well spent organizing all the data you have, including recordings, artifacts, notes, etc. You’ll be really happy you created this organization scheme when you’re back home in a completely different environment, buried in emails, and the trip already seems in the distant past. Creating a scheme will also help you figure out if you are missing any data and you’ll have a chance to correct this before you leave.

Tip #2: Think about ways to communicate your data

It’s also fruitful to start thinking about effective ways to communicate your data. By now, you’ve likely met a participant whose story is particularly riveting or you’ve heard a really powerful quote. Take some time to jot these down and brainstorm new approaches while it is fresh and your in-field creative juices are flowing. If you have a team in field with you, it’s productive to meet with them and understand which specific data impacted them and why. This will help you understand what will resonate and have emotional impact with a larger audience.

Tip #3: Plan and start analysis while in field

Starting data analysis while you are in field is invaluable. One: there is no substitute for freshness of your experiences. Two: starting in field gives you more time to mull over the process or outcomes. We could always use more time on projects, no? Three: starting in field makes the task of analysis way less daunting when you arrive back home…at least you have started, and starting is indeed the hardest part. Four: Lastly, the data analysis session creates the perfect occasion to brainstorm opportunity areas and solutions based on immersion in real data; a user centered design dream come true.

Think hard about how to conduct the data analysis so that it is fruitful. Do you want to have a collaborative affinity exercise with your team members who are in field with you? Do you have the set-up ( room, wall space, etc) and the materials ( data points) ready to do this? Do you want to start this half way through or wait till you have collected all of the data? Is the point of the exercise to get team members immersed in the data or is it to really start analysis? What is a reasonable amount to get done in an afternoon? How will you record the results of the analysis? Plan the analysis session well and it will be worth your while.

So, now you are at the point where you are ready to do your analysis session- awesome! Whether you are doing it by yourself or with your colleagues, give it some structure. Define a goal, an amount of time, and some ground rules. It’s very easy to try to analyze too much during this session and come away with nothing of use.

Tip #4: Organize outcomes before you go home

It’s also easy to lose valuable cycles by doing a whole bunch of great work in field but not recording it well enough to be usable later on. Take pictures of the outcome and spend time putting it into a useful format. For example, if you are doing an affinity with post-it notes, transcribe the outcome into software like Visio so you can save it, add some meaningful notes to it, and easily re-use it for a later analysis session. I’ve tried transporting the post-its on a huge piece of paper folded up in my suitcase and unfortunately when I got back home, many of those post-its didn’t make sense anymore. When I inquired with team members, they had also forgotten what they meant. I hadn’t spent the time clarifying what some of the notes meant and it was a loss of work.

4. Communicating Your Results 

Any time you communicate your findings, you have to think about your audience and your message. International field research is the same. However, one challenge I’ve experienced is that it can be hard for the audience to understand a foreign environment and this can affect their understanding of the findings. As a result, I spend a lot of time setting context so my audience feels connected to the environment and therefore feels more connected to the insights. Here’s an example from one of my past projects.

Example: Chinese gamers

I was on a project where we were investigating Chinese gamers who game in internet cafes. We had a lot of quantitative data around things like average amount of time spent in the cafes, average money spent, age, gender, etc. These data points were powerful in that they communicated the scale of gaming and the opportunity potential- this was my primary message. We also had deep qualitative data from ethnographies with select gamers.

I knew my audience weren’t heavy gamers and predicted that they would have a hard time understanding the motivation of intense and collaborative gaming. This would hinder their ability to internalize my main message.

I decided to first set the context of internet cafes. I used photos of interiors and exteriors to give a sense of being there and quantitative data to reveal the prevalence of these cafes. I walked through, with photos and narration, the experience of walking into the café, getting a computer, paying, sitting down, etc. Then I introduced 3 main ‘characters’ or participants which I used throughout the rest of the presentation, especially when I wanted to connect opportunities to insights. I told a story about these participants by showing pictures, video, and audio clips about their homes, friends, when they started gaming, their favorite games, why they do it, etc.

I focused on data that would augment the quantitative data later on. For example, one point was that X percentage of gamers go to the internet café even though they have a pc at home because they want to hang out with their friends. I included video of the gamers talking about the feeling they have when they go to the café: the familiarity of everyone knowing who you are and the pride experienced when everyone knows you took the high score last night.

Setting the context and introducing the participants took up about 40% of my presentation, but it was well worth it. The audience felt connected to these participants, and through pictures and voice, understood the importance of gaming in their lives. They were memorable people, which meant the key message was also memorable, as they were always tied to these participants.

It’s such a privilege to be allowed into someone’s life to do research. So much is learned and a connection is formed. International field research is really hard work, but so gratifying when you can tell someone’s story thousands of miles away and be their voice. Even more gratifying is the impact of this research. The opportunities founded by the insights. The design inspired by your participants’ lives. The emotion evoked from this design.

I hope this post helps your quest to tell someone’s story and inspire design in the near future!