Advantages of in-field international research

by Foolproof

These days, the web prompts companies of all sizes to consider a wider range of international audiences when designing their online products and services.

Many choose remote forms of research in order to gain insight on their target market to feed into the design process. In many cases, this is arguably cheaper and more convenient than face-to-face research.

In terms of getting the most out of each research participant, there are advantages to conducting research sessions face-to-face but what I have noted during recent fieldwork is the additional ethnographic benefit to the researcher of being in the field.

Toronto and cultural nuances

At the start of the year, Neil Pawley and I were working in Toronto to conduct research for an online gaming brand. Our primary method of research was a programme of in-depth interviews to investigate prospective customers’ behaviours and attitudes to gambling. In addition to the interviews, our presence in the country allowed us to subject ourselves to some of the cultural nuances that we are trying to uncover through the research. The fact is that being immersed in particular culture for even a short time presents interesting advantages when conducting research within it.

As researchers, or even as tourists, we observe differences in national cultures all the time. On a broad scale, we can see how the dominant society in Canada shapes its people. This is true for all societies, who are each shaped by different legislation, social expectations and the physical environment. Of course, observations like this don’t change much over time and can be recognised without the need for primary research. It is when we move down to the subtleties of a culture and the more personal attitudes and modes of interaction that we are subject to more useful contextual information that can be factored in to the research and design of a localised user experience.

For example; Neil and I took the subway to the research venue. On our way through the station, Neil came across a rack of paper slips that resemble the UK National Lottery forms. On closer inspection, these slips were part of the Ontario rock-paper-scissors (R-P-S) game. True to our expectations, the style of this game was similar to the UK National Lottery, yet surprisingly different from another popular ticket based game ‘Proline’ that was also available. Because of this passive detective work, we became aware of the subtle distinctions in the types of ticket based gambling that were available to our research participants and were therefore able to begin the research with a valuable foundation of knowledge with which to probe each person. 

Local knowledge research

This foundation of knowledge doesn’t necessarily need to come from articles on display. If, as a researcher, I were investigating online shopping styles in order to establish an ideal shopping experience for online electronics retailer, a good place to gather observations could be a physical electronics shop.

Visiting a shop like this could provide indirect information on the confidence of different types of shopper, or perhaps how customers respond to signage, labelling or marketing in the store. The detective work could continue whilst buying a coffee. A quick glance around a large coffee shop at the number of tablet computers in use may go some way to representing the current penetration of these devices. A nearby newspaper could provide a goldmine of local knowledge.

In the case of our gambling and gaming research, the newspaper’s sports section provided valuable information with which to create common understanding and rapport with the participants during the research. Techniques like this are by no means scientific but they help the researcher to establish some norms that can be assumed, or indeed interrogated in the formal research. 

The case for field research

Of course, where budget and time constraints allow, extended ethnographic studies are likely to provide the researcher with far more detail than single interview sessions but, regardless of whether this is possible, better research can be conducted by a moderator that has even a small portion of local knowledge. The extra cost of conducting face-to-face fieldwork overseas gives a great deal of context to the user, which is essential in shaping their online experience.

Am I anti-remote testing? Far from it. It’s an invaluable tool particularly for tactical testing and tuning. But for proposition/service design and when you’re exploring new ideas for international audiences there’s still an extremely strong case for field research.

What do you think?