Words by Adriana Noboa, Bryn Pernot, Juliana Sublewski, Sarah Hernandez, and Lindsey Brinkworth, Visuals by Emi Tolibas
International research is crucial to truly understanding the nuances of your user base across markets, and—increasingly so—it’s part and parcel of scaling your influence. We’d be remiss not to mention how the past year has changed the way in which we view connection; it feels more important than ever to position your research to be inclusive and wide-reaching.
This article is written from the perspective of dscout researchers who are experienced in running remote, unmoderated international studies. These guidelines are meant to give a birds eye view of the considerations that are key to successfully fielding research internationally, and the challenges you’re likely to face along the way.
The first few questions to ask yourself are table stakes. They’re going to set the stage for what you’re trying to accomplish and help keep track of what matters most to you and your stakeholders.
- What are you hoping to learn? Is there a particular question that can’t be answered by your home market? Are you simply trying to gauge sentiments around a product, or get at a deeper mental model for its use? Will this be iterative, or need updating in the future? At the end of the day, you want to have a clear understanding of what your ideal output would be, including the pieces of this work that you’ll want to discuss immediately, and what pieces will live on in other work at your organization.
- How does your research translate across markets? For each individual market that you’re hoping to field research in, it’s likely that you’ll be garnering insights that are specific to that country—including things you haven’t seen before, or don’t have a robust background on. Taking an open-minded, localized look at the data you collect will help establish the reasons you’re looking at this specific market for answers.
- Will your market analysis be comparative? If so, you’ll want your research design and process across markets to be as consistent as possible. If you’re looking, instead, to put out feelers, it’s important to keep your research design as unconfined as possible to allow for new themes to come up organically. Having a good understanding of the similarities, rarities, and differences you’re open to seeing will not only stimulate further curiosities, but it’ll most likely eliminate some post-launch regrets.
These are important initial questions because, as timelines inevitably shift and scopes are modified, they’ll act as a north star for where you can redesign, dig in, or let go. Like with all research, the goal is to communicate your objectives for the research clearly and often with the people you’ll be working closely with, so everyone is on the same page.
There are a few guiding principles to keep in mind as you take on research in international markets. You’ll see these come up in various ways throughout this piece:
- Build in extra time to each project stage. Due to time zone differences and potential extra key players, international research just takes longer than domestic research, and you’ll want to account for any unanticipated hiccups along the way.
- Clearly communicate with partners. The kind of partner you’ll work with depends on what kinds of support you need, but whatever kind of partner you end up working with, set clear expectations on what you’re both responsible for.
- Conduct a pilot study. Running a mock or pilot study can help you identify spaces to optimize your research design and help set a benchmark for what “good” responses look like.
- Give clear instructions. Providing detailed instructions to participants will help guide them to provide the best data they can. And clarifying why you’re collecting the data you are can help build trust, especially if participants are sensitive about sharing particular data.
- Take note of cultural nuances. Understanding these nuances and localizing your research to the markets you’re working in will help reduce confusion and communicate respect. The ideal international partner can help inform your research design and analysis processes by bringing their cultural expertise to the table.
- Localization beyond translation. Even if you’re not translating your research design into a local language, account for other types of localization (e.g. tone, time zone, payment) to reduce confusion and build trust.
We’ve organized this article by project phase, so you can see how best to set up your international research study from beginning to end, and how the time, effort, and thought you put in early on can yield better results when it comes time for analysis.
Once you’ve identified why and where you are doing international research, you’ll need to figure out what kinds of support you need to actually make the project happen. The ideal partner depends on a few factors:
- What capabilities your internal team already has. Do you already have access to a panel of international participants or do you need a recruiter to help find and screen them?
- What language(s) the project is being run in. Can your team translate the research design and recruit/manage participants in another language or do you need a translator and moderator to help? A partner can also help localize your research and ensure you are referring to the correct brands and using language that will feel familiar to participants.
- What market(s) the project is being run in. Do you have enough familiarity with the country to understand the values and attitudes that may show up in your study or do you need to work with a partner who is knowledgeable about that culture to help validate your findings?
- What timezone(s) the project is being run in. Will you be able to answer participants’ questions in a timely manner or do you need someone working in that time zone to help you support participants?
We recommend using partners who can support as many stages of your project as you need, including recruitment, translation, moderation, and analysis, as they can share their market expertise and knowledge of your particular study all the way through.
As much as possible, we’ve tried to work with the same partners across multiple projects and have focused on fostering mutually beneficial relationships, so both we and our partners are empowered to do the best work possible. Even when it’s your first time working with a new partner, we suggest identifying ways to continuously improve processes and ensure clarity in communication to help build trust with each other.
This can look like: creating a document that outlines roles and responsibilities for each team member, having a kick-off call to walk through tasks and recruiting specs, building out a project calendar with key deadlines, setting up weekly calls for quick touch points especially during busy project phases, and working with your partner to establish the right communication channels and cadence.
For international research studies, there will, more often than once, be multiple plates spinning, so triple checks and detailed expectation setting will be critical: this means allowing space for reviews, delays or roadblocks, and/or translation challenges in your project timeline. You will likely need to build in extra time for:
- Running a mock study before the full project
- Reviewing the research design with partners and getting them up to speed on the project expectations
- Localizing and translating the research
- Recruitment, depending on the method used
- Onboarding participants (if you’re using an unmoderated research tool like dscout)
You’ll also want to check with your partner about any holidays during your fielding schedule and leave yourself breathing room in case of unexpected delays (like translations take longer than expected or participants aren’t able to access your research platform).
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Running a mock study
Given how complicated, expensive and time-consuming international research can be, we’ve found that taking the time to conduct a small scale test before setting up international fieldwork goes a long way in making sure the larger effort goes smoothly.
It can be easiest for this mock study to be run in your home country or a market you’re more familiar with, which will also set you up to compare markets during analysis, but this is not critical. Wherever you decide to run it, the mock will help:
- Tighten up the study design and determine which questions yield the richest data
- Identify any areas where participants experienced confusion or misinterpreted questions
- Show moderators what is expected of participants and where to redirect (e.g. This is what a good response looks like. This answer is lacking detail.)
Localization and Translation
As you’re adapting your research design for international markets, you’ll want to make sure it’s clear to participants: in translation, localization, and tone.
By localizing, we mean putting yourself in the shoes of a participant and asking, “Will they understand what we’re asking them to do or respond to?” We’ve found that having a partner who can review the research with a critical eye and offer suggestions goes a long way in making sure participants can execute tasks without needing additional direction from you. This can be anything from changing a list of brands to be geographically specific to identifying whether a particular metaphor makes sense.
At dscout, we tend to write research and communicate with participants in an informal and colloquial tone, which can work well for some markets, but doesn’t translate well to other languages.
For example, we’ve found that participants in Japan prefer a very formal style of communication, as it helps establish legitimacy and communicate respect. On the flipside, for a project with Gen Z participants in Brazil, we learned that having an informal tone built rapport with participants and encouraged them to offer more detail in their responses.
Given the variety of preferences across countries and age groups, we’ve found it helpful to ask partners what they suggest and build a list of recommendations on tone and localization to utilize in future projects.
As you develop the research design and begin the recruitment process, it’s important to build in clear language on what data you’re collecting and why. Participants want to know upfront what information they will be asked to share and how that information will be used. Treat the instructions and project overview with as much care as you do the research design.
For example, instead of just saying, “In this diary study, you will be asked to complete a daily entry explaining your thoughts on this product.” Try something like, “Your data will be shared with a team of researchers (no one else, we promise!) to help inform product improvements. Your honest, detailed thoughts will help us build a better experience for you and other users.”
Data sensitivities can vary across countries. For example, we’ve found that participants in Japan are hesitant to show themselves on camera, while participants in Germany are particularly nervous about sharing personal information without knowing how it will be used.
As you consider what countries you’d like to run your study in, do research on any particular privacy laws (like GDPR in the EU or the LGDP in Brazil) that may affect what kinds of questions you’re able to ask. This People Nerds piece covers more details on navigating GDPR, creating consent forms, and working with legal teams.
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As you identify what participants you’d like to have for your study, consider:
- What criteria is most important to screen for
- What demographic mixes you’d like (and whether these categories will translate to other countries)
- How much time to build in for recruitment (which may depend on how niche your recruit is)
In order to streamline recruitment and limit the amount of data that participants are sharing, we recommend excluding questions that aren’t tied to specific recruitment needs. We’ve found that outlining the recruitment specs and specifying how each question relates to those specs helps establish clear expectations with your recruitment partner.
If having balanced demographics is important to your study, verify that your partner will be able to achieve those mixes. You’ll also want to consider whether and how certain demographics will translate to other markets. For example, the concept of race / ethnicity in the United States might not translate or be thought of the same way in other countries.
When working with a partner, we typically reserve 2-3 weeks for recruitment if the sample is relatively easy to find. If the group is more niche, we usually build in at least an additional week.
Having enough lead time for recruitment allows partners to familiarize themselves with the project and get their teams up and running, as well as execute on the recruit and shift course if needed.
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Depending on where you’re planning to run your research, prepare any instructional language that will help your participants successfully onboard onto your project. This will involve helping familiarize your partners with whatever platform or research tools you’re using, and identifying resources they can turn to in case participants run into any technical difficulties.
We’ve found that participants around the world have varying levels of familiarity with smartphones, remote qualitative tools like dscout, so we’ve provided our partners onboarding guides with step-by-step instructions for new recruits and example messaging translated into local languages.
Clarity in expectations and instructions
Beyond ensuring that the questions themselves are well-translated, localized, and written in the correct tone, it’s also important that any instructions you’re providing participants clearly convey what they should do and why.
As we’ve run remote, unmoderated qualitative research studies in various countries, we’ve learned that we need to adapt the way we write instructions for different countries.
Here are some dscout-specific examples:
- In countries like Germany where participants are sensitive about showing their face, we explain why it’s important to see their face (e.g. “We are really invested in your story and what you have to share, and it’s important to see your face as you tell it.” or “It’s impactful to hear what you have to say, and most impactful when we can see you saying it.”)
- We’ve seen that participants in the United States and the United Kingdom tend to give long, detailed answers describing their emotions (especially if they have familiarity with qualitative research) without being prompted to do so.
- On the flipside, participants in Japan expect detailed instructions about how much they should write: instead of just saying “write 1-2 sentences,” we say things like “In 1-2 sentences, describe your rating for this product. How did you feel when you were using this product? What emotions did you feel when using this project? Be sure to provide descriptive details and use 10-15 characters per sentence.”
Wherever you’re running research, we recommend a hands-on approach to reviewing data (especially at the beginning) to gut check all that expectation setting is yielding the results you’re looking for.
Work with your partners to coach or redirect participants as necessary and figure out ways to provide feedback sooner rather than later, so participants can learn what to do in later phases of the research.
Before kicking off your international project, you’ll also want to agree on how you or any partners you might be working with will want to handle paying out incentives to your participants. Some things to consider:
- Establish who will be in charge of paying out participants. Will this be you or your partner? Letting your participants know who to go to and what to expect when is key.
- Payment method. Can you actually pay your participants with whatever payment mechanism your company typically uses? (e.g. At dscout, we use PayPal, which is not commonly used or accepted in some of the markets we do research in).
- Local currency and conversion rates. Whenever possible, pay participants in the local currency to establish legitimacy. If you’re paying in USD, be sure to factor in conversion rates. Depending on the payment method you’re using, you may be charged to convert currency from USD, so it’s nice to offer a little extra to cover that conversion fee.
- Remember why you’re assigning the activities. Take a moment to reflect on the types of activities you’re asking your participants to perform. Will your international recruits be as comfortable completing some activities as your US and UK recruits? Increasing your incentive can go a long way with encouraging participants to cross the finish line.
- Pay participants quickly. Be sure to pay out incentives in a timely manner! As a rule of thumb, we initiate our payment processes within the week a project has closed and send a note out to participants thanking them for their time and effort.
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Cultural differences can make it difficult to assess the validity of your data. Are the trends you’re seeing due to cultural nuances you’re not aware of or are they just specific to the specific participants you recruited?
Before diving into your data, consider:
- Finding the right partners. Teaming up with partners who are knowledgeable of cultural values and attitudes to help you validate findings respective to the participants you’re working with.
- Ask yourself why. Going back to the beginning and reminding yourself why you’re doing international research in the first place — Whether you’re taking a “bottoms up” approach or validating any hypotheses you might already have, revisiting your goals and objectives can help you structure your analysis approach. (For more generalized analysis tips and tricks, check out our foolproof analysis guide here).
For more international research advice, explore our piece: International and Cross-Cultural Experience Research: Advice from Five Experts.
dscout features (like translation mode) help facilitate and scale your international research. Learn more about international research on our platform, or contact our team to get started.
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Mac Hasley is a writer and content strategist at dscout. She likes writing words about words, making marketing less like “marketing,” and unashamedly monopolizing the office’s Clif Bar supply.