Expect the Unexpected: Tips for Conducting Global Research

For any company interested in expanding globally, research aimed at understanding your users is essential to delivering a truly great user experience—one that reflects empathy for the cultural differences and addresses the user needs specific to the region. Doing upfront research leads to greater accuracy and depth of knowledge to the questions that are most relevant to the user experience of specific services, products, and target market. We recommend speaking with users and observing them directly instead of relying on third-party information.

Domain-expert and bi/multilingual researchers are few and far between, so in order to yield the best insights it is essential that the lead researcher partner effectively with local vendors and be prepared. Doing global research comes with its own set of unique challenges: upfront efforts to expect the unexpected could help you stay prepared when navigating in unfamiliar territory. In this article, we offer some of our stories and tips from conducting research in Latin America.

Discover your Hidden Biases, and Leverage Them!

We are often unaware of the fact that we have hidden biases and expectations about how people think and behave. When preparing to conduct new research, have researchers and stakeholders openly state what they think they know about cultural and behavioral norms, and keep those beliefs in mind throughout the research process. What you find may surprise you!

When conducting research, be prepared to take note of times when your beliefs and expectations are challenged. Do not be afraid to dig deeper in the areas where you lack knowledge. Even if it might slightly veer from your original goals, you may not realize in that very moment the implications it might have in your research. As they say, the devil is in the details!

When delivering your research findings to stakeholders, tell a story about cultural and behavioral differences. This not only helps to create empathy and set the context, but also gives stakeholders a lens into the similarities and differences they should consider. Remind them of the beliefs they stated early in the research process, and challenge their ideas on what is considered “normal” or “common” by revealing insights from stories and data that you collected.

For example, one of our expectations about online shoppers, in general, is that they tend to ship to their own addresses, in their own country. Through our research in Columbia and Mexico, we learned that it is a common practice for online shoppers to ship to a U.S.-based shipping address—usually to a friend, family member (they retrieve the package when they visit the U.S.), or third party service—because shipping costs are lower, packages arrive faster, and buyers have the peace of mind knowing that their packages will not be tampered with in customs. The implication of this for localization is huge and something we had not fully considered.

As another example, we knew that Brazilians often paid in installments while shopping. However, we did not recognize our biased assumption that installment payments were for big-ticket items such as furniture or household electronics. After a trip to a local mall, we realized that even everyday items such as clothing and shoes would also be bought in installments (see Figure 1). A light bulb went off for us—not only was it common to pay in installments, but it applied to items we did not expect, too!

Picture of shoes sold in installments.

Figure 1. In a mall in Sao Paulo, our research team spotted more items sold in installments than we initially expected. Notice that the installment price is more visually prominent than the total price!

Do Not Underestimate the Savviness of Consumers in Emerging Markets

There is a tendency to underestimate the “savviness” of users in other markets when we come from the trenches of ecommerce hubs such as Silicon Valley in California. In fact, many aspects of the Latin American online market are very mature, with well-established and reputable online retailers and services.

Latin American users are often exposed to similar levels of content and services, which sometimes surpass the offerings in the U.S. Domestic competition may be more sophisticated than you might have anticipated.

When we were visiting San Paulo, Brazil, we were surprised by how high user expectations were around delivery times to their residence. We were aware that the local online shopping market was very well developed, but we did not anticipate how sophisticated local online retailers were with same-day delivery services. Two-day free delivery did not sound as enticing when the competition could deliver packages within hours. For example, what may sound impressive to a consumer in the U.S. could be underwhelming for one in Latin America.

Users’ underlying needs, goals, and behaviors are often universal, regardless of market, and it is important to recognize the similarities so that the product team can capitalize on aspects that generalize across global populations. Your team may need help prioritizing their resources for effective impact, and your research can help inform a strategy by identifying whether a large-scale internationalized experience could suffice for a region or if localization for very specific user needs is warranted.

In general, we were impressed by the tech savviness of the Latin American ecommerce consumer. Their use of mobile devices, flash sale sites (domestic and international), as well as domestic ecommerce, and international ecommerce competitors was very similar to what we find within the trenches of Silicon Valley. At times, it felt like we had never left home.

We suspect that the geographic proximity between the U.S. and Latin American plays a role in the tech savviness we observed. Be sure to allow time in each of your sessions for natural discovery of how consumers shop the local competition and to understand the digital landscape. Ask them to show you how they use devices and websites in their daily lives.

Consumers May Have Little or No Knowledge of Your Brand

When we have a very strong brand presence in our own backyard, we may take for granted that our brand, or value proposition, is well known to others. Perhaps we are even a global leader in some cases, but we may very well be unknown in other countries.

In some cases, users may have beliefs, perceptions, and expectations that are influenced by a local competitor. You have to be prepared to explore these competitors deeply to understand their context of use and how it might affect your own brand. Are the competitors you are being likened to perceived in a different light? Will it affect user acquisition? Can users see fundamental differences in your product compared to your competitor?

Projects May Take More Time Than Planned Unless You Plan For It!

Always budget extra time in projects, especially if it is your first time doing research in a particular country or with a new vendor. Set expectations with your stakeholders early, and make them aware that doing any research globally may run into unexpected snags and delays.

For example, bilingual communication and translations will add significantly more time to a project—especially for translations of surveys, protocols, and reports. When conducting research in Latin America, we used a vendor we thought was very comfortable in a bilingual role. They seemed to understand English well and were able to converse with us comfortably. However, when it came to the guide and the reports, their work was done in Spanish first and then translated to English, and in many cases the English was not commonly spoken English. Hence, we needed to rewrite the guides and reports.

Re-work due to language barriers can add complexity to the timeline, especially if it is unplanned. When communicating with vendors, be sure to ask for report samples and take their translation process into consideration. Some tips to expedite timelines are to write the discussion guide yourself (and then translate it to the local language) and ask for a document of insights from which you can create your own findings report.

Other examples of project delayers include slower recruiting, political demonstrations that may occur in the city you planned to travel into, or fully booked hotels due to a holiday the week you planned to visit. In Mexico, before the second day of research, we received word that there would be a teacher’s strike, and that all the streets in the area would be blocked. This came as a surprise to us and we did not know what to expect the next day. Would our participants show up, or not?

Our recruiting vendor called all of the participants, informed them of the news, and asked where they were traveling from and how. All participants arrived on time, and things turned out okay in the end. But you never know what you might encounter. Rather than hoping for the best, it is always helpful to do whatever you can to mitigate the situation. In this case, calling the participants was our best bet.

In general, strive to clearly communicate with vendors in simple and direct ways to help reduce ambiguity around project expectations, timelines, and deadlines.Take into account the time difference and cultural expectations around timeliness, and understand that immediate replies may not be the cultural norm in Latin America.


Remember to expect the unexpected! Unleash your hidden biases and dive into global research with all eyes and ears open. Do not be afraid to let the research go off track, even if it means taking a trip to a local shopping mall. Control your level of excitement if/when you learn that certain technologies and/or processes are ahead of the times than those in your primary market. Be prepared to learn new things about how your brand and competitors (both international and domestic) are perceived. Most of all, have fun and enjoy the discovery process.

You may now be thinking, well gosh, Sin Lee and Anosha just prepared me to dive into doing global research in tomorrow! Although we have not fully prepared you, we hope it is a good start and that we have inspired you.

Please tweet your experiences with us! We would love to hear your stories.

Shokrpour, A., Loh, S. (2014). Expect the Unexpected: Tips for Conducting Global Research. User Experience Magazine, 14(4).
Retrieved from https://uxpamagazine.org/expect-the-unexpected/

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