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Researching Users in Another Country? Here's How to Prepare

From navigating new data legislation to adapting to new social norms—researching users abroad requires some adjustments. 

About a year ago, I moved from the US to Germany. It was one of the best decisions I could’ve made, and I was excited to see the user research field in Berlin thriving.

I landed a job and started up as I usually did. I had my toolkit that I was happy and familiar with and went to work applying that.

And then I realized: Toto, we’re not in the US anymore.

User research in Germany is different than it was back in the United States. Not just legally, but also in terms of culture and understanding.

It wasn’t as simple as applying everything I had learned in America, but with a German accent. I had to reconsider the way I interacted with participants and moderated research sessions.

In the end, the two biggest struggles I had in the transition were adjusting to GDPR and user research sessions—that’s what I want to walk through with you now.

GDPR

My first and biggest struggle coming from states was dealing with the differences in the legal system. My number one nemesis became the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

(Now, with the California Consumer Privacy Act formally in place, paying close attention to where our user data comes from—and the legal ramifications of collecting it—has become paramount for US-focused researchers as well). 

Privacy law prevented me from doing things like gathering user data I wanted, or from reaching out to participants who hadn’t given consent (although, this comes down more to ethics than legality).

Once I realized how vital GDPR would be for conducting effective user research in the EU, I decided to take action in better understanding and adhering to GDPR.

Here are the four things I did to navigate international privacy regulation:

Talk to your legal team

I immediately contacted our legal team to get more advice. I sent them an updated consent form, as well as my recruiting screener to review. Note: this takes a very long time, and I wish I had done it right when I started at the company. Lesson learned. Since then, we have been going back and forth on how to “GDPR-ize” the user research process.

Recruit carefully

Unfortunately, GDPR has taken some of the fun out of recruiting. I quickly learned I couldn’t recruit anyone who hadn’t explicitly signed up for our newsletter (already given consent to receiving communication with us), which limited the scope of potential participants.

Some data I wanted to gather during the recruitment survey was unessential. I used the following to amend my recruitment:

  1. Trimmed my recruitment survey down to the bare bones of what I need to contact the participants, with very few questions on demographics. This survey also provides participants the option to skip or not answer any question. It also linked to our data privacy policy
  2. Agreed to delete the recruitment data after one week to ensure the utter anonymity of our participants

Consent forms

With consent forms, I often thought: less was more. I was wrong. My one-pager consent form was not sufficient. I went back-and-forth with legal on how to make our consent form GDPR-compliant. There are a lot of examples out there, but not one that necessarily took the cake.

I created a template for you all, including a consent form (double signature) and a data privacy agreement. It is pretty standard, but could save you a few headaches. 

Data Processing Agreements

I had no idea what Data Processing Agreements were before I started exploring GDPR. One example of when these are needed: We use Typeform as a recruitment tool because Typeform is beautiful and easy to use. Little did I know, using third-party tools to process user data can be GDPR non-compliant. 

We couldn’t just use Typeform. We had to enter a data processing agreement with them, first, if they were going to have access to personal data. 

I had my toolkit that I was happy and familiar with and went to work applying that. But I had to reconsider the way I interacted with participants and moderated research sessions.

User Research Sessions

Moving to a new country has completely changed how I run my user research sessions. Although there are some similarities, I quickly realized I would need to adapt quickly to a new culture. I learned this by doing and failing, but I wish I had been less ignorant about what I would face before I had started.

Next time I move to a new country, I will be sure to do the due diligence on the culture, and how they receive different research methodologies. Although Berlin is a melting pot of diversity and cultures, I decided to focus primarily on Germans, as that is our primary market.

How do my research sessions differ? 8 ways:

Language

I don’t speak German. I’ve picked up some phrases and can understand the simple conversation, but I could not moderate a research session about travel in German. I am fortunate that many people living in Berlin speak English, so we have access to English-speaking participants.

What I didn’t do, however, was think enough about how I was phrasing what I was saying. I stuck to more native English idioms because I was comfortable with them. I used more challenging vocabulary and potentially confusing jargon. To me, it seemed reasonable.

I finally realized what I was doing wrong after my fifth research session in Germany. I was talking to a participant and told her I wanted to switch gears. What I meant was, I wanted to go to another topic. A few participants had looked confused when I said this, but I hadn’t thought much about it. She stopped me and asked me what I meant by “switch gears.” Since then, I think about every statement and phrase coming out of my mouth. I try and speak as simply as possible.

Social norms

I have little context on what the social models are in Germany. Of course, after a year of being here, I am better at recognizing them, but I am still learning every single day.

I find it helpful to have a German colleague sit with me in the interviews. They can give me a heads up to anything I am missing, and also grade me after the session. For a while, I was asking participants about paying online with a credit card. Finally, after several interviews, I started to notice that Germans generally don’t like paying online with a credit card, and would much prefer to use PayPal or something more secure. I had to change my questions on-the-fly.

Moderation with a translator

When you need to moderate with a translator present, you can either do simultaneous moderation or provide a detailed script in advance.

Unless the translator is also skilled in user research, I would recommend doing simultaneous moderation with the translator. This allows you to dig deeper when necessary, instead of relying on someone else to moderate for you. Always tell the participant that this will be happening beforehand.

Scheduling

In the United States, I would schedule research sessions weeks or months in advance. In Germany, it is very different.

Once you get over three weeks, people would rather wait until the dates got closer to the book. I need to make sure I am sending out recruiting emails at appropriate times. I don’t want to send a limited number of slots to too many people and force them to book beyond a time they are comfortable.

Outreach

In the US, we like to confirm, reconfirm, and then maybe confirm one more time that something is happening. I used to send multiple emails to participants to make them feel like I was there and excited to see them.

My participants this past year were not as happy with all of these emails. Several of them were annoyed with the number of times I emailed them about our sessions. I have taken that feedback and reduced the number of emails I send drastically (I cut it in half!).

Consent

I have to spend a lot more time talking about consent in Europe than I did in America. Before, I had a two-page consent form. It had the essentials and required only one signature. I asked for consent to record before recording, of course, but I didn’t have them sit through and read the consent form in front of me.

Now, I have a consent form of about seven pages, which requires two signatures. I have them read through the consent form ahead of time and in front of me. They then sign their consent to participate and have a separate signature to consent to video/audio recording.

Video

When I do remote research interviews, I always turn on my video. I do this for two main reasons: 1. So people know I am a real human, and 2. To build better rapport with participants.

I didn’t even think twice about this in America. I would turn on my video, and the person online would turn theirs on in response. Once I moved, I noticed, when people saw my camera on, they hesitated. They didn’t want to turn on their cameras.

After a while, I started saying they didn’t have to. I explained that I was turning mine on so they can see I am human. It takes a layer of stress off the participant and allows them to decide on their own. Also, for in-person sessions, participants felt more comfortable being audio recorded versus video. It makes it a bit difficult to analyze, but I am now much more aware of how I might be making my participants feel by pressuring them into video recordings.

I stuck to more native English idioms. I was talking to a participant and told her I wanted to switch gears…she stopped me and asked what I meant by that.

Context and cues

Although we are all unique humans, we generally have cultural cues we follow. For instance, Americans can be overly friendly to the point where other cultures don’t view us as genuine. It is vital to have a grasp on these different nuances because they can have an impact on your analysis.

Now, these are all just generalizations of what I have learned in my time doing international research. It is not an exhaustive list, and I am continually learning and adapting. Whether you have moved to a new country or are conducting global research from abroad, it is super important to keep these points in mind. Research sessions are difficult to mitigate as is, and by misunderstanding social norms or cues, you can quickly derail an entire research session (or study)!

I highly recommend doing some reading on the culture you will be researching. Another fantastic resource I have used is researchers who have conducted research in Germany. I have them bring me through all of the different nuances they have observed. I can then prepare myself for what may come. The fewer instances of shock or confusion, the better the integrity of the sessions will be.

Nikki Anderson

Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.

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