Travelling safely for user research overseas

By Neil Pawley

In a previous blog I talked about why getting lost makes you a better researcher; immersing yourself in the country you’re conducting research in by travelling on public transport and walking about the city whenever possible.

This is all fine advice in an ideal world but the thought of losing yourself in an alien city can be unsettling for some and downright dangerous for all in certain parts of the world.

Just because you’ve lived in London all your life and know what you’re doing doesn’t mean that you are naturally prepared for working in a city in another country. Each metropolis has its own particular dynamic, its subtle nuances and tempos that only unveil themselves over a period of time and through close study.

Confidence is great but you still have to be careful. Even now I break out into a cold sweat when recalling the time, two years ago that I found myself, completely by accident, in one of the least salubrious areas of Sao Paulo, Brazil. This is a city with a reputation for violent street crime that makes Detroit and Mexico City look like welcoming holiday hotspots.

So I offer a few suggestions, learnt the hard way, which any consultant visiting and working in a foreign country should bear in mind:

Make sure you’re covered

The worst thing that may ever happen to you working abroad may be a stubbed toe or a minor bit of sunburn, but just in case something more dramatic happens it’s essential to ensure that you have sufficient health cover for all eventualities (either through a corporate scheme or your own personal cover).

Do your homework

Check out Wikipedia, the Foreign Office website and the CIA World Factbook to find out about the country that you’re visiting. What’s the currency? Do you need a Visa and where do you get it from? Do you need any specific jabs? How are the country and the city you’re visiting performing economically? Are there any places you should avoid and why?

Cultural differences

Are there any simple things to avoid that might otherwise cause offence to those around you? Sticking your chopsticks vertically in a bowl of rice or buying the wrong colour flowers for your hostess may cause upset in China even though there was no intention to do so. Certain hand signals or the sight of the soles of your feet may offend in other cultures. All of this can easily be avoided by taking a little time to better understand the culture you will be working within.

Talk to people

Ensure that you always take the opportunity to talk to those around you. The hotel receptionist, the translator, the client or the third party contractors you will be working with will all have invaluable information and tips. Great places to eat and drink, sites to visit and the places to avoid, just to be on the safe side.

Know how to get home

Always carry the hotel business card with you with the address written in the native language. This will always simplify any negotiation with a cab driver or when asking a police officer for directions.

Get to know the public transport system

The majority of metropolitan cities have an underground (or with Bangkok and KL, an over ground) train system. Cabs may be hard to come by at certain times of the day so knowing what the underground logo is, how to buy a ticket and which station is closest to your hotel could prove to be invaluable knowledge.

Be aware of your surroundings

Look around you and see what others are doing. There could be good reason why nobody else on the train is using an iPad. It may be because there is no Wi-Fi available in the transit system. Alternatively, it may be that no one wants to attract attention to themselves in this environment by using an expensive and easily stolen piece of technology.


Always have a range of note denominations and coins in your pocket. You could be faced with some lively and inconvenient conversations with the cab driver if the smallest note you have is the equivalent of a local day’s pay.

Always keep your mobile with you

If the worst comes to the worst you can always call your hotel and get them to organise some transport for you. Forget about the cost, your safety and peace of mind is always the most important thing. Just don’t make a habit of it.

This isn’t designed as a comprehensive list; it’s really no more than a starting point. In the end as long as you take care and use common sense you will only expose yourself to the joys of new cultures and experiences whilst adding depth and understanding to the research in hand.

Personally I can’t think of anything that is more fun or exciting than visiting and exploring a city for the first time. I always feel it’s an adventure that should be embraced rather than something that should be feared.

Neil Pawley

I joined W3C in 1995 working for six years on the formation of guidelines for HTML, CSS, RDF and WAI. I worked with some of the cleverest people around, lectured in the UK and US and authored and contributed to a number of technical publications. I’m also immensely proud of having contributed three entries to Roger’s Profanisaurus in 1998 and they are still there.

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