Rewards and Pains: User Research in Brazil

On July 2013, Tim Brown, CEO of the world’s lead design company IDEO, wrote in the foreword of Design Transitions (Yee, Jefferies, and Tan) that the world is transitioning from designing with users to designing by users. Nevertheless, in Brazil, designing with users is still a big challenge. This is possibly because the local hierarchical, bureaucratic mindset and culture heavily affect the design and user experience industry. On one hand, the dynamic and sometimes unstable Brazilian culture requires Brazilians to be creative and adapt quickly to abrupt changes in economic, political, and social situations. On the other hand, Brazilians are bound by social conventions and have difficulty breaking these patterns, particularly in corporate settings. This creates a challenging environment to introduce user-centered design.

A cartoon showing text balloons with the objections covered in the text below.

Figure 1 – Five typical objections to UX research.

Background of UX Industry in Brazil

The UX industry in Brazil began late, toward the end of the 2000s. Consequently, the UX maturity level of most companies is still very low. Access to end-users is a luxury that most companies deny, perhaps fearing the setting of false customer expectations or exposing weaknesses in their own IT departments. However, most Brazilian end-users have widespread access to top technologies such as smartphones, tablets, and video games developed in other parts of the world where a positive user experience is no longer optional. As a result, their growing dissatisfaction with corporate systems and IT tools is becoming obvious to Brazilian companies.

In response, the reaction of most Brazilian companies is to hire a “UI expert” and ask them to “add usability to the system.” They expect the UI expert to take a finished or under-development system and beautify it—generally without reaching a single end-user in the target profile. For the length of the project the “UI expert” swims against project currents trying to do acceptable UX work.

Challenges in Demonstrating the Value of UX

At SAP we faced multiple challenges while providing user experience services and evangelizing UX to one of our largest customers. Our customer was a large company founded in the 1950s by then-President Getulio Vargas. This company has been an SAP customer for more than a decade and is one of the largest SAP customers in Latin America. It employs more than 60,000 people, including 5,000 IT staff, and approximately 150,000 IT contractors. Most employees and contractors are based in the southeastern state of Rio de Janeiro, which was influenced by Portuguese/Catholic culture and was the national capital until the 1960s. This is important to understand because hierarchy has strong roots in this region and consequently heavily influences corporate relationships. Hierarchical thinking created challenges for us to gain necessary approvals and finalize decisions to get access to end-users.

In 2011, the customer visited SAP Labs Latin America and, following our presentations, seemed delighted with the opportunity to improve the user experience of their SAP users. Next, we undertook a week long general proof-of-concept study and presented the results to the customer’s IT lead, himself a user for the chosen system. The customer’s IT lead reported that he had also experienced the issues we uncovered and agreed with our findings.

For the next year, we iteratively created a viable business model for this new type of SAP service. One of our challenges was operational: our UX department was not a revenue-generating department but had to estimate costs and scope for this project. To solve this, our SAP UX team and the SAP Custom Development team partnered in proposing the solution. Another challenge was customer buy-in: we realized that before the customer would agree to fund user experience improvements they must first agree that the UX issues were, in fact, creating negative user experiences. To solve this challenge we divided the project into two stages: a UX research study and a solution proposal, where the solution proposal would be approved depending upon customer satisfaction with the UX study results. The customer agreed to the two stages and our solution proposal was positively received.

Partnering with the Customer

The customer provided us with three of their team members and recruited 18 end-users for us, a collaboration that was vital to the project’s success. We were able to perform field research with end-users in three key profiles. Two of the customer team members worked with us full time during our research, observing studies in the observation room, assisting with synthesizing findings, and helping us understand the end-user workflow. Due to this collaboration our research findings and recommendations exceeded all expectations. We received very positive feedback from our customer and gained approval for following phases.

The success of this first project opened new doors for our team. New, similar projects arrived. One of those was a large logistics project involving eight groups of users, and was the very first project with user-centered design activities at the onset. For five months we conducted field research based on the customer’s business processes and system requirements. After we completed the field research we combined our research results with the business and technical requirements and held a Participatory Design (PD) workshop. Typically, PD is where developers, business representatives, and users work together to design a solution. In our case we used our user research results in place of actual users. Next, for each user group, we created mock-ups and validated these with end-users before finalizing the specification document. Following this, development and usability testing occurred.

Interestingly, this project was under negotiation with SAP for more than two years. When we added in user-centered design, we got the deal. After that other initiatives began to flourish. In 2013 our customer became a pioneer in using new SAP products created to foster better user experiences and improve customer satisfaction. We are currently working toward helping the customer build their own UX organization to enable them to move to the next level of UX maturity. They have the necessary managerial sponsorship to support their focus on improving user satisfaction. Additionally, with encouragement from our customer, other organizations are beginning to engage in this effort as well. This is very positive movement.

Cultural influences and low UX maturity played a significant role in creating the challenges we faced when introducing user centered design to Brazilian companies. After reflecting on our experience, we realized that this happens not only with the large customer we worked with, but also at many customers in our region and probably with customers all over the world. We also realized that end-users have decreased patience with a poor user experience because they regularly use products and services created by companies with mature UX practices. We learned that before our customers became supporters of user-centered design we had to evangelize the value of a positive user experience. We did this by initially undertaking research studies to carefully demonstrate the value of this positive experience to our customers. We also learned to spot the major ways in which companies discourage UX participation, and developed responses to overcoming these barriers (see below). We hope this encourages our UX colleagues to continue to expand our field in Brazil and Latin America.

Overcoming Objections to UX Research

Objection 1: “The user has no interest in giving feedback to the development team.”

Response: If the appropriate users with the correct profile are recruited and a skilled researcher interviews them, users are interested in providing feedback. They like having their voices heard and will tell you what they are trying to do and the difficulties they have using your product.

Objection 2: “The IT team knows exactly what users need.”

Response: Users are getting less and less indulgent with software systems since good user experiences with all kinds of products are becoming a differentiating factor. In addition, even when the IT team does know the business process, they still are IT people who think like IT people and perceive things with an IT mindset. This makes it impossible for them to anticipate everything that users will need and/or want.

Objection 3: “We don’t have a designer but we have a junior developer who can play that role.”

Response: Design is a discipline that requires a set of skills—including some soft skills—that are different from the skill set of a developer. A positive user experience is also more than just the user interface, as Dickerson said his article, “Seven Things your Boss Needs to Know About UX.” A successful user experience involves user research, interaction design, visual design, and a UX strategy.

Objection 4: “The customer ‘s project doesn’t have time to apply these research methods.”

Response: Good UX practices, including user research, have to be fully integrated in the product life cycle, complementing the requirements-gathering phase, and shortening the development cycle by significantly reducing rework and missed requirements. In the end the savings in rework and support, together with the increased quality and customer satisfaction, will compensate for any extra time, which is usually much less than the customer expects.

Objection 5: “You can’t talk to end-users because that will create too high expectations.”

Response: Talking to end-users is an art and a science. It requires the right skill set, and can be developed with techniques and practice. The researcher must make sure the user understands that although everything reported will be taken to the product team’s attention, no promises are being made. All customer feedback will be evaluated from a technological and business point of view.

5 Research Hints for Introducing User Centered Design

  1. Be flexible to avoid research bottlenecks. If you have to wait a long time to get approvals think about different alternatives. For example, setting up a test system and installing appropriate software (like Morae Observer) to support field work can take considerable time and can delay your tests. We found that running user tests in our production system was faster than creating a fake user with all permissions and data in our internal system.
  1. Create a checklist for field research. When you finally receive permission to access end-users, review your checklist: double check the formal confirmation from every participant and that the mobile usability lab is up and running. Check for moderator and participant scripts, and any other additional documents like a copy of the non-disclosure agreement.
  1. Keep technical people out of the test room. When running a usability test, sometimes ill-chosen words to the participant by a team member can ruin the test results. Participants no longer feel comfortable giving honest feedback because they worry they are being tested instead of the design.
  1. End- user suggestions are exactly that. Although end-user involvement is fundamental to gathering the most insightful user needs, set appropriate expectations with your end-users by explaining beforehand that some of their suggestions or recommendations may not be reflected in the future solution due to business and technology constraints.
  1. Do not schedule more than three participants per day. Remember that even with end-user confirmations, you might get no-shows. Recruit extra participants to fill these free time slots. Also, pay attention to researcher fatigue: after the third user, are they still gathering the same amount of information?
  1. Partner with the customer. They can help the research team with communication, recruiting, remote observations, and synthesis sessions. We found it made a huge difference.


Pilar, D., Martins, F. (2014). Rewards and Pains: User Research in Brazil. User Experience Magazine, 14(4).
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