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6 Key Questions to Guide International UX Research

by Elizabeth Shelly, Pamela Walshe, Liang Zhang
8 min read
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International UX research mitigates risk, generates customer insights, and ensures that new products and services meet the needs of the intended local audiences.

Are you worried about how customers in other countries will react to your product or service? Not really sure who your international customers even are, or what they want and need? To find out, it might be time to pop outside the domestic market and conduct an international user research study.

Are you worried about how customers in other countries will react to your product or service? Not really sure who your international customers even are, or what they want and need? To find out, it might be time to pop outside the domestic market and conduct an international user research study.

Understanding international customers is more critical than ever as emerging market economies continue their rapid expansion. With Internet and mobile usage in particular, the recent adoption rates have been astonishing. China reported 513 million Internet users by the end of 20111—an increase of 30% since 2009—with nearly 70% of them accessing the Internet using handheld devices. Meanwhile, in the next decade seven emerging economies including China, India, and Brazil, are on track to represent nearly half of global GDP growth2. Companies with a deep understanding of their target audience are best positioned to provide needed services and products to customers across the globe.

On the flip side, companies that don’t understand their international customers are at a strategic disadvantage and at greater risk of making missteps that could undermine their success in diverse markets. Products may fail (even absent competitors), and competitors with deeper customer insight may gain a better position with a more user-centric product. International UX research is important even in countries or regions with customers who speak the same language, as regional differences in nomenclature, cultural norms, and customer needs can dramatically impact the success of a product or service.

With this in mind, consider these six key questions before embarking on an international research program.

1. How much do you already know your international customers’ needs and current behaviors?

Before conducting any new research, take stock of what you already know about customers from existing data such as analytics, prior research, and syndicated research. Doing background research on overall market and customer trends can help you develop hypotheses before designing more in-depth, primary research. As you review prior research, identify key questions such as who are your current customers, what are their wants/needs, and whether there are any gaps in the market to help focus your research. Finally, consider whether a theoretical framework can help to explain cross-cultural user behavior and attitudes in a digital realm, and spur further research and insights. For example, theories of which values are emphasized in certain cultures such as Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory3 can help explain why a country like Holland4—where employee characteristics tend towards informal, consultative relationships with superiors and where communication is participative—ranks first worldwide in penetration for professional networking5. Professional networking penetration is much lower in countries where employee hierarchy is more formal and subordinates are less comfortable critiquing those who rank above them.

2. What is your international research goal?

After reflecting on your current knowledge, identify your primary international research objectives. This is a critical step to ensure that research is focused to address key questions, that the method is appropriate to answer the questions, and that the findings can be tied back to the objectives. Ask yourself:

  • How will new findings support your organization’s global business and product development objectives?
  • What decisions do you expect to make using your new insights?

The right methodology will largely depend on where you are in the research and development cycle, and will fall into one of these two broad categories:

  • Exploratory international research focuses on understanding user behavior and bringing context to the design or concept. Common methods used in this phase during international research include ethnography, in-depth interviews, and contextual inquiry, and they are largely conducted in-person to ensure that the findings are couched in the regional context. This research is conducted early on in the development process so teams can adjust assumptions and the development roadmap based on insights revealed by the research. Research at this stage also helps secure early buy-in from key international stakeholders who can serve as champions of later evaluative research.
  • Evaluative international research focuses on testing concepts or other stimuli, and can include traditional usability testing involving direct observation of users interacting with the product, or quantitative surveys. This type of research is designed to yield insights leading to specific, tactical design recommendations to better hone and shape the user experience. For this type of research internationally, there may be opportunities to leverage remote study methods to increase geographical reach and sample size (assuming the country has the appropriate technical infrastructure).

3. Do you have the right internal talent to get the most out of international research?

International research is a long-term investment in understanding users, and you need the right team in place to frame appropriate research questions. While you won’t be able to learn everything about your customers with one study, each piece of research provides the building blocks for the studies that follow. This long-term view will help you learn about your customers across regions, understand how your product or service is perceived by the world, and set up guidelines to encourage global innovation to remain competitive. It’s important to think of each study as one step in the process of understanding users, engaging local sponsors and securing local champions, and encouraging local buy-in to company-wide initiatives.

The scope of international UX research can seem daunting. Each country in which you conduct research multiplies the complexities of a typical UX study with translation, transcription, and facility personnel, as well as the difficulty of operating across multiple countries, languages, and time zones. Recruiting practices and facility setup can vary widely across regions, so choosing local partners wisely is of paramount importance. To avoid costly surprises (including fake participants and inadequate research facilities), and to get the most out of your research, consider partnering with a research firm experienced in international work. UX research firms dedicated to international work will manage international projects from start to finish to ensure consistent, localized testing across segments, finds cost-saving opportunities, and helps build the foundation for your long-term international research and business goals.

4. What is your overall localization strategy?

Early research efforts can help to inform local strategy and, for multi-national companies, secure buy-in from key local stakeholders. In cases where internal guidelines are not in place for global product development, initiatives may spring up at the local level and can run the risk of diluting a holistic product strategy. For example, AnswerLab worked with a Fortune 500 shipping and logistics company where many different applications were being developed for local markets by local offices, resulting in ineffective coordination of customer insights across these tools. After recognizing this, the company put guidelines in place to encourage and coordinate product innovation across regions while maintaining a standard that allows for alignment and integration of insights.

A better understanding of key international markets, as well as your company’s own organizational infrastructure6, can help the product team decide whether to keep innovation and development centralized6, or move to decentralization. Decentralization may be a valid strategy if the primary needs of your company are creativity, innovation, and value-based expansion, and if you have the right local talent in place to build public-sector relationships and private-sector partnerships.

5. What is the legal/regulatory framework and local research practices in your market(s) of interest?

To avoid surprises or costly delays, ensure that you familiarize yourself with the laws and regulations pertaining to market research in the countries you’ll be targeting. For example, in the United States recruiters are able to contact potential participants largely at will to inquire about research participation. However, the U.K. has special recruiting restrictions, and privacy laws in Canada and Switzerland necessitate that potential participants have opted-in prior to contacting them about a specific research study. While recruiting in the United States is often done by specialized firms with opt-in databases, recruiting in countries such as China may rely more on word-of-mouth and referrals. Your internal local champion can help by flagging these issues and helping navigate regulations. Industry associations, local facility contacts, and international UX vendors are also excellent sources of local information. It’s imperative to understand how easy it will be to find and conduct research with your target audience.

6. How can you optimize your budget?

From quick-and-dirty remote usability studies to in-depth multi-country ethnographic research, there are international research methodologies and strategies for any budget. For example, although on-the-ground testing is ideal for exploratory research, it’s also possible to conduct sessions using conferencing software such as Skype or WebEx in regions where participants have sufficient Internet connectivity. Remote testing can be effective when you are seeking to evaluate UI concepts or prototypes, especially in cases where an in-person session would be prohibitively expensive or when time is short.

While user testing in the participant’s native language is optimal, the cost and time associated with translation and native-language moderation can be prohibitive. In some cases, it may be more practical to recruit participants who speak your language, avoiding translation costs. Special care must be taken when interpreting results from non-native language studies, as customers who speak your language may be different from those who do not in a way that impacts your research. In addition, anytime research is conducted in a non-native language, one must be mindful to ensure appropriate translation of concepts.

Again, a trusted research partner can help navigate international studies by mitigating cost surprises as well as vetting and hiring translators and native-language moderators. Conducting research in emerging markets can actually sometimes be less expensive due to lower wages and fees of local partners such as translators and moderators, as well as lower facilities costs. Leveraging front-line employees (e.g., call center, field sales, or service staff) and customers located in the area being studied can be an efficient, inexpensive starting point, especially in regions where your native language is widely spoken. We recently worked with a Fortune 500 company to interview sales and customer technology staff across five regions and identified several global trends with customers moving certain portions of their daily work to mobile devices, which made an immediate impact on the company’s product decisions.


Conducting exploratory or evaluative research internationally is critical to ensure that new products and services meet the needs of the local audiences they’re intended for. Finding internal local champions can help to improve buy-in from global stakeholders, and working across regions helps engage international teams and encourage collaboration and innovation.

It’s a mistake to think international UX research is something you can’t afford to do. There are valuable options across a range of budgets, and the long-term strategic advantages far outweigh the short-term costs. And, as with any good UX research, this international UX work will also help your organization mitigate risk, better understand the needs of customers, and maintain its strategic advantage by designing more user-centric products and services.

  1. Statistical Report on Internet Development in China, CNNIC – back
  2. McKinsey Quarterly (April 2011) – “Is your Emerging-Market Strategy Local Enough?” – back
  3. Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions – back
  4. Cultural Dimensions Country Profile – The Netherlands – back
  5. Com Score (April 2011) – “The Netherlands Ranks #1 Worldwide in Penetration for Twitter and LinkedIn” – back
  6. McKinsey Quarterly – “To centralize or not to centralize?” (June 2011) and “Understanding your ‘globalization penalty’” (July 2011) – back
  7. Image Credit: By Yann, CC-BY_SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
post authorElizabeth Shelly

Elizabeth Shelly,

Elizabeth Shelly, Ph.D. is an Associate User Experience Researcher at AnswerLab where she works with Fortune 500 clients in logistics, finance, and social media to optimize users’ web and mobile experiences. Elizabeth earned her BA in Computer Science at Dartmouth College, and her PhD in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Oregon. She enjoys sharing her enthusiasm for technology and science with students through teaching and mentoring.

post authorPamela Walshe

Pamela Walshe,

Pamela Walshe is a Research Director with AnswerLab and is responsible for managing verticals including online media, health care, automotive, and travel. She has 10+ years of experience in User Experience and previously managed the User Experience Research team at Wells Fargo for online and mobile platforms. Pamela earned her BA with high honors from UC Berkeley in Anthropology, and her Master’s degree from UC Berkeley’s Information School.

post authorLiang Zhang

Liang Zhang, Liang Zhang is a User Experience Research Manager at AnswerLab where he has led dozens of exploratory and usability studies spanning over twenty countries, eight time zones, and four continents. His work has helped clients in the financial services, logistics, social media, and healthcare sectors create and market outstanding digital products and services. Liang received his BA in Economics from UC Berkeley and his MSc in International Management from the London School of Economics & Political Science.


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