Why you should do user experience research internationally

It's widely recognised that international user experience research is vitally important to undertake prior to launching a new product or service in a foreign territory.

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Yet many companies are still happy to overlook the practice, basing their decisions on assumptions which may be fundamentally wrong for a variety of reasons. High costs are also often stated as a reason for skipping user experience (UX) research, disregarding the potential cost of failure.

Having worked for several organisations that did undertake user research before launching products internationally, I'd like to share some insights, whilst also highlighting a few methods that help keep costs down but still allow organisations to get the most out of their research.

A clean, simple UI may not work in some countries

Some years ago, while working as a UX designer for a major international publisher, I helped design a new product that takes a massive data set and transforms it into simplified dashboards with actionable information. Our lovely minimalist user interface was praised by users in Europe and the U.S. They said it helped them make sense of the complex data and showed them how to use that data to inform their decision-making.

However, when we showed our beautifully designed, minimalist dashboards to users in Singapore and Japan, we got quite a different reaction. They said the information density was too low and there was too much unused white space in the UI. They felt short-changed and said we should be showing a lot more data on-screen. We also observed that most users in Japan did not speak English very well (or at all) which made it very hard for them to use the product.

The feedback led us to redesign our product before launching worldwide. We kept the minimal UI, but gave users one-click access to the complete underlying data set. We also provided an onboarding guide in Japanese so that users in Japan could quickly get up-to-speed.

Ultimately, the product proved more commercially successful in Asia than in Europe and North America! The user research we did in Asian countries had a significant return on investment, so it was easily worth the cost. If we had skipped the international research, the product could have landed disastrously in Asian markets.

Users in other countries have different needs and frustrations

This example shows that users in your own country might not be representative of users in other countries across the world. So if your product or corporate website is aimed at an international audience, you should test it with users in a number of different countries.

Doing user research in other countries will allow you to uncover any key differences that you should consider when designing your product. Users in other countries may have very different needs, wants and frustrations.

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Users in other countries have a different cultural context

User experience research allows you to identify any cultural differences between countries. Your product may be very attractive to users in your own country but confuse or turn off users in other countries because it doesn't fit their cultural context. Your use of colour or imagery or your tone of voice might come across as offensive or inappropriate. For example, in some parts of the world (like Greece and Iran), the "thumbs up" gesture actually has a negative meaning.

For companies based in Europe or North America targeting a global audience, it can be particularly important to understand the Asian markets and the specific needs and behaviours of users in that part of the world. For example, users in some Asian countries prefer a high information density, whereas users in Europe tend to prefer a more minimal UI. Getting it wrong could really hurt your product launch.

Do I need to do user research if I’m already doing market research?

Market research and user research sometimes overlap, but they serve very different purposes. Market research can tell you whether your product idea is commercially viable, while user research will tell you how the actual product should work.

User experience research allows you to test an early-stage prototype of a product before committing to full-scale development. It can also be useful to identify needs and frustrations among potential users of your product. This could lead to innovation opportunities as you pivot to provide solutions for those user needs or frustrations.

Market research can help identify how big the market for your product is within a country or region and what your pricing strategy for different markets could be. But it will not tell you whether your product as designed will work well for end users in that country. You’ll need to do user research to answer that question.

Align with your international roll-out strategy

Ideally, you'd like to test your product in every single country where it will be available. But of course, that's not realistic. The cost and time involved to do so will likely be prohibitive. 

A more effective approach is to define an international roll-out strategy for your product, identifying the key markets to target first. This allows you to align your user research with this roll-out strategy. For example, if you're giving high priority to rolling out to China, then it makes sense to do some user research in China first, before making a large investment in sales and marketing efforts targeting the Chinese market.

To be most cost-effective, user research should also be aligned with timelines to localise the user interface (for example translating to Chinese). Testing the product in another country will be much more effective if it is in the country's own language. However, you may also want to consider doing some early user experience research with the original English-language product before making a significant investment in translating the user interface to another language. 

Make your international user research cost-effective

Doing user research internationally can be a costly proposition, both financially and in terms of time and effort. However, you can certainly find ways to keep your costs down. Keep in mind though, that this can hurt the quality of the feedback you receive through user research. Look for the sweet spot between cost and quality – gather just enough data to identify the key differences in other countries.

You don't have to test in every single country where your product will be available. There is a certain level of homogeneity among users in Europe and North America, so you can, with a relatively high degree of certainty, draw generalised conclusions from testing in just a few Western countries. On the other hand, it can be risky to generalise about "Asian users". Users in, say, China, Japan and Thailand can have significant country-specific differences in how they perceive your product and what they need from it.

Testing remotely (e.g. over Skype) rather than face-to-face will drastically cut the costs of doing user research abroad. Another cost-cutter is to do all your face-to- face interviews at a single location, such as a conference, trade show or (if you have one) your company's local office. Also, consider working with a local partner to do the user research for you, saving expenditure on travel and translation.

Don't simply redo the user experience research you've already done in your existing markets. Rather, focus more on identifying any country-specific differences that could impact adoption and usage in that country.

Find out more

Want to know more about doing user research abroad to ensure that your product or website will be successful across different countries? Then why not get in touch with us.

Nomensa is an international UX agency experienced in doing user research in different countries. We can take care of all the practical details of international user research, such as participant recruitment, scheduling, technical setup and language issues. We can also help you develop a strategic approach to get the most value for money.

Please feel free to email us at hello@nomensa.com or phone us at +44 (0)117 929 7333.