Over the last five years, I have led Key Lime Interactive in conducting user research in the U.S. and abroad. In Latin America, we have conducted user research in Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. I can tell you that moderating UX studies in these countries is not an apples-to-apples comparison to our U.S.-oriented approach. However, don’t despair; by following a few of my quick tips, you can account for some cultural idiosyncrasies to get the findings you need. I’ll share my personal recommendations and best practices to consider for each stage of study design including screeners, translation, fielding, observation, and identifying the most compatible user interface for your sample. By following these guidelines, you will get your study off to a solid start.
The screening process alone can present more than its fair share of challenges. For example, there is more sensitivity surrounding social and income levels in Latin American countries. UX professionals testing in the U.S. are accustomed to asking typical screening questions about gender, age, total household income, marital status, and education. Many of these general questions can be considered rude when asked in a straightforward manner.
In Mexico, in particular, I would encourage you to shy away from including an income question in the screener. Generally speaking, people are very private about their income. Questions pertaining to livelihood may be perceived by the participant as if you are judging their success level. It’s a good idea to steer clear of these types of income qualifiers.
The Asociacion Mexicana de Agencias de Investigacion y Opinion Publica has a great algorithm tool that contains questions that can help you reach the right participant without directly asking about income. Incredibly, the most influential variables in this algorithm include education and number of lights in one’s home. One strategic way to understand the income level question, without directly asking, would be to quantify the number of lights in the home. There’s a little psychology at work in this approach since it allows the researcher to narrow down participants based on financial substance as opposed to financial income. The more affluent the participants, the less likely they will be able to quantify this number. However, those participants on the lower end of the scale will typically have a smaller household and will easily identify the number of lights instead of using an approximation.
Translation and Localization
The number one way of fielding a successful study is to translate as well as localize your screener and discussion guide for each and every country, even if every test country speaks Spanish. A verbatim translation of the content will not always resonate if you do not take into consideration the culture of the region where the tests will be performed. The Spanish spoken in Colombia translates differently from the Spanish spoken in Mexico, and in many instances the same word or phrase can have different meanings. The term “¡Ahorita!” is an expression in Latin America that means “right now!”. This term does not directly translate in the Caribbean Spanish dialect, where it is used to describe something that is in “no rush” and can be held off until later. Doing your homework and going the extra mile will have huge payoffs in your findings; it will also save you potential pitfalls during design and fielding.
From recruiting and usability tests to focus groups and triads, a discussion guide that leverages the native language is a great way to make a good first impression. Not only is your study clear and easy to understand, but designing engagement tools in a native language creates trust with the user/participant and establishes credibility. One of the most important aspects of a good study is creating a comfortable environment where participants can feel at home and give genuine responses. The language that you use can make a big impact in getting your research project off on the right foot. Being proactive and vigilant in the translation of your materials will provide a good baseline understanding of your sample and ensure optimal participation.
Dialect also plays a considerable role when running a moderated study. Your moderator should be approachable, relatable, and understandable by your participants; this can include the speed at which they speak. I can personally relate to this particular guideline because in most Latin American countries, I speak too fast. Over the years, I’ve learned to slow down and enunciate every word so that nothing is lost in translation.
Finding facilities in Latin America that are of the same quality as in the U.S. can be tricky. My advice is to always use a facility located in the more affluent areas of the city in which you are testing. Often this means that costs will increase, but it will also make the experience for your clients more enjoyable. Most facilities include food in their daily rate, which is different from U.S. facilities and an added bonus. Air conditioning, though, can be considered an extra.
Another little known factor about Latin America is the size of the observation rooms; many are not large in size. They can be tiny and not necessarily accommodating, even in more upscale locations.
This brings me to the most important point:- it’s critical that you negotiate when choosing a facility. Once a facility determines that an international company is conducting the research, the facility day rates increase. For example, one facility in Mexico City wanted to charge $4,000 USD/day. We managed to negotiate a better rate of $2,200 USD/day. You must negotiate and then negotiate again. Ask for pictures, and if the back room is tiny or old, use this information as leverage.
As many of us know, fielding is a crucial stage in any study. Your ability to collect data will ultimately impact your ability to secure actionable results from your study. For starters, be open to surprises and be ready to learn, adapt, and make changes on the fly. You’ve done your homework. You think you know the cultural differences of your country of origin. You are certain you know your product. Be flexible. A little knowledge and flexibility will make you a better researcher in the end. I have several anecdotes where companies began their research in a foreign country and assumed the questions they were using would be relatable throughout the study. They were not. In many cases, you will need to improve your approach to adapt to the cultural nuances. Every country will have specific topics that are more relatable than others, so make sure to be considerate and respectful of these differences. It will help your project. It will net better data and it will allow you to learn on the job. On-the-spot adaptation is a factor that will always play a role when conducting studies abroad. No matter how much prior research you may have prepared, there will always be room for improvement once you are in the fielding stage.
Based on my personal experience in Latin America, there are many other considerations during the fielding stage. People in Latin America enjoy discussing their personal lives and love to share their personal experiences, sometimes in a very detailed monologue. I have been in many situations where I learned about a participant’s best friend’s cousin’s boyfriend’s mother who cooks the best paella. Sit back and enjoy the story. It will improve your results and, who knows, you might end up with a great paella recipe, too.
There is another important character trait to consider: in many countries ego is a well-known personality trait. Don’t be sucked into a game of one-upmanship with a participant. In past studies, I have had both male and female moderators compete against each other and compare their capabilities. Noted social psychologist Geert Hofstede notes in his cultural dimension theory that there are five dimensions that drive culture: Power Distance, Individualism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity, and Long Term Orientation. The Masculinity dimension talks about the idea that man derives from competitive and ambitious values, whereas woman pulls from a more emotional and ”quality of life” value system. This is prevalent and true in Latin America. It also goes back to my earlier point that participants don’t want to share their income and be compared to their peers. They will not allow any opportunities to sacrifice their ego.
One word of warning if you are a female moderator, be prepared to experience the equivalent of “catcalls” during research; expect to have at least a few male participants tease and flirt persistently. They see it as a compliment. By the same token, if you have a gender-oriented product (motorcycles, dresses, etc.), you MUST insist that the moderator matches the gender of your targeted sample. In the U.S., you may strive for a gender match and it is always preferred (especially in the retail industry), but it’s not a must-have like it is in Latin American countries. In our U.S.-based studies, we select based on preference and allow for some latitude. In Latin America, a gender match should always be assumed and enforced.
You cannot assume that because you know Spanish you will be able to understand research in Brazil. The dominant language in Brazil is Portuguese, which has significant differences when compared to Spanish. This is especially important when the moderator and participants speak at a comfortable conversational speed. No matter how prepared you may be as a Spanish speaker conducting a study in Brazil, you will miss 90% of the comments made by participants because Spanish is not Portuguese. Participants will speak so quickly that you’ll be lucky if you are able to catch even one notable finding.
I have found that Brazilians, in particular, prefer a non-lab environment. In fact, if you really want to get the low-down about what they think, it’s better to meet at a restaurant or for drinks. This relaxed environment takes the pressure off of the participant and provides everyone with a more relaxed comfortable setting. In Latin America, it is sometimes better to engage with participants in a more casual manner; they will be more willing to open up and feel less like lab rats.
UI Design Considerations Learned During Research
In 2014, it’s become clearer that U.S. sites like Amazon.com, and travel sites like United.com and Delta.com, have shaped user interface (UI) expectations especially among the affluent populations in Latin America. Participants refer to these sites when trying to describe what they consider to be optimal design patterns during research. Latin American mental models are different though, and as we have found with various research sessions, adopting a global framework for design can make the sessions very painful for some. The verdict is still out though. If you are trying to decide if you will use a global framework, my advice is to make sure you run an international card sort to see if users’ mental models are the same. For some it is clear that the approach does not work, and for others it results in a successful outcome.
Moreover, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t mention that UI text expansion is still an issue for those that adopt a global framework. In Latin America, you need to account for 10-35% expansion. This means that words tend to be longer and you need to take that into consideration so that the UI doesn’t break down quickly. In a recent study we conducted, the client personalized the logged-in experience as part of their U.S. requirements. In the U.S., “Welcome Mary Jones” works fine, but in Latin America, where some users have composite names and use both married and maiden names, you may end up with something like “Bienvenido Maria de la Santa Cruz Martinez Hernandez” and one very annoyed user who is insulted that their name is cut-off.
It’s no surprise that the three countries I’m writing about today (Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia) are the largest economies in Latin America. Whether you are conducting research in these countries or other locations in Latin America, always remember the top takeaways from this article:
- Overall, be flexible.
- Be sensitive to cultural nuances when developing screeners. Think light bulbs.
- Translation and localization – Get it done “Ahorita”…as in NOW.
- Take a play from the “Shark Tank” playbook before locking in a facility. When all else fails, pick a more affluent and/or safer area rather than being penny wise.
- Sometimes you’re better off getting creative with where you meet participants for research rather than using an over-priced lab.
- Latin Americans invest a significant amount of time into relationships. Be human. Build rapport. Always.
- On-the-spot adaptation is key.
- Moderation – Picking a moderator whose gender matches the specific product’s target group is a must-have not a nice-to-have.
- Don’t assume that because you know Spanish, you can understand sessions in Brazil.
- Global framework vs. Localized design is still up for debate. Test before making this decision.
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