In our industry, we are often asked to conduct non-directed interviews by telephone with audiences around the globe. This presents several logistical challenges. We need to:
- Present the interview in a culturally appropriate way.
- Communicate clearly with people who don’t speak our native language.
- Collect their thoughts without warping them to our own perspective of the world.
- Send them a stipend for their time.
Fortunately, there are simple, clear ways to accommodate linguistic, cultural, and monetary differences when conducting user research. Follow these four easy steps for a successful interview abroad.
Step 1: Send an interviewee brief.
In many countries—including Japan, Hong Kong, and China—participants expect to be introduced to the subject matter before the interview. They feel more comfortable if they know they will be part of a valid study for a known corporation.
To address this, we send all participants an introduction to the subject matter before setting an appointment for an interview. Here’s a sample interviewee brief:
Thank you for your interest in the research project at [ABC Corporation]. We are going to interview 24 people from around the world, representing [various job roles]. You have been selected because of your job role and because of your interest in furthering understanding between everyone involved in your business.
Our interview will take 60 minutes, and we will have a translator on the telephone so that you can say things the way you normally talk about them. We are interested in hearing you talk about the way you approach your job. We want to hear the details of how you make decisions or solve problems. We will not be talking about catalogs or Web sites. We are interested in all of your decisions, no matter what tools you use to carry them out, no matter what vendors you interact with. We are delighted to have you participate in our research, and we look forward to meeting you on the telephone!
You’ll want to have someone translate the interviewee brief before sending it out, which brings us to our next step.
Step 2: Send a translator brief.
If your interviewees speak a language unfamiliar to you, of course you’ll require the services of a translator.
Often global companies ask their own employees to perform translation duties. Like the participants, translators will also require a brief that introduces the subject matter.
In the brief, you’ll first need to familiarize your translator with the non-directed interview methodology. Explain that it involves getting to know the interviewee as if you were meeting him or her at a dinner party. Just like at a dinner party, you ask your companion questions based on the conversation so far, not based on a list of things to talk about that you have written down on your napkin!
Note that you’ll want to keep the conversation natural, and encourage translators to relay the words of the participant literally, and not interpret them to “make more sense.”
Finally, explain the interview logistics, such as, “We expect you to join us on the telephone before we dial in the interviewee, and when the operator dials the interviewee, we expect you to make the initial greeting in their local language.”
Step 3: Record an accurate story.
Even when working in your native language, you want to record your participant’s perspective, not your own interpretation of their story. To achieve this, take a transcript of the conversation instead of taking notes.
Notes tend to be written in the third person, “He checks the total acid, and records it in his lab notebook.” In the third person, it is far easier to record your own perspective by mistake. Perhaps you call it a lab notebook, but your participant called it the lab book. If you take transcripts instead, you have a much better chance of recording the person’s story rather than your interpretation.
When you add a translator to the communication channel, you increase the chance of the signal degrading. The translator will be speaking to you in bursts, after a few minutes of conversation with the participant in his or her native language. Ask the translator to speak in the first person, not in the third person. “I make a spreadsheet to track the buys,” not “He makes a spreadsheet to track his buys.”
The translator conducts the conversation on your behalf. If the participant gives one-sentence answers to your questions, ask the translator to prompt the participant to explain. For example, if you ask, “What project are you working on?” and the participant answers, “I run the production line,” the translator should prompt for more details.
Step 4: Send a gift certificate.
When we conduct research, we often give the participants some kind of stipend for their time. We have found it much easier to send international participants gift certificates for merchandise on local Web sites than to try to wire them funds. The process is much easier and costs nothing more.
Wire fund transfers usually have a fee associated and involve the communication of personal bank numbers. To send gift certificates in most countries, all you need is a credit card number and some confidence navigating foreign sites.
Not all countries have Web-based merchants yet. However, most countries where we do our testing and research do. For example, Amazon.com exists as Amazon.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.de, Amazon.jp, and Amazon.fr in the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, and France respectively. (We are hoping for China soon!)
To get to the gift certificate form on the non-English Amazon sites, follow these directions:
- Amazon.de—Germany. Click the middle button.
- Amazon.jp—Japan. Click the orange button, then the link in the first sentence.
The gift certificate form on a particular site is often the same from country-to-country, so a glance at the English version will tell you what values they want in each field. All you need is the participant’s email address, currency conversion, and a translated “thank you for your participation” message to paste into the comments field.
Doing user research abroad doesn’t have to be daunting. Keep these logistical tips in mind; you should have no problems working with participants from around the globe. You’ll get excellent results when everyone is comfortable, clearly understood, and compensated for their time.