International user research: It’s much more to it than you think

When you want to understand more about your customers in a specific market or to test your design with them, you’d probably go to a researcher or an agency in your home country or reach out to a local company to run a user research for you.

The underlying factor which determines whether or not you’ll get the best and most insights out of your research is not whether you go for the first or the second option. It very much depends on how experienced the consultants are in running cross-cultural research and their personality. Yes, you hear me right. Their personality and attitude do matter.


“Running international user research is just like how you’d run the research here, but run it with users from other countries.”

No, they are definitely not the same. This is a common perception people have and worryingly, among the UX community and researchers too.

There’s a difference between “We can do international user research” and “We know how to do international user research right”. The former could execute the research, probably run it as they would have done in their home country and give you a report. Sure. You’ll learn something new from it. Maybe some findings which help you tweak the design of your products. The latter, however, knows all the tricks and tips to emphasise or to avoid. This includes from recruitment to logistics, from what to look out for during research to how to interpret what you see and hear and convert them into useful actions.

The latter comes with years of experience - researching in tens of countries across continents, skills to be able to think differently and see things from different perspectives.

Research in Hong Kong
Research in Qatar
Research in Malaysia


Don’t underestimate how much time or money you could save and the benefits you could gain when the consultants you work with know inside out how to carry out a successful research internationally. For instance, when you choose the right consultant(s), you’re more likely to be able to:

  • Speak to the right user groups, have sufficient time to speak to each participant and have fewer hiccups during the research (e.g. in some countries, you’d expect participants to arrive late for their research sessions. A good consultant should know about this in advance and take this into consideration when scheduling the interview slots in those countries. Small details like this have a big impact on the quality of research)
  • Receive as accurate first-hand insights as possible on-site when you don’t speak the language (e.g. a good consultant should know what the best set up would be for live simultaneous translation and know what to look for in an interpreter. Having a great live interpreter is key since they are your only channel to learn what your users say and think during the session.)
  • Get insights which are useful, important and relevant to you because a good consultant would know what questions to ask, what to look out for and what to observe. They know the key areas that should be explored more in that specific country for your particular industry/sector. For example, certain behaviours are more important for a car manufacturer company than for a grocery company, and vice versa. Sometimes a specific behaviour might seem like a norm to a researcher who doesn’t have much knowledge on cultural differences (either they are from your home country or from the country you’re researching in). It might turn out to be something that is unique to that country, which can significantly define what your design and brand or marketing strategy should be. Missing a key unique behaviour could mean missing out on opportunities or making the wrong business decisions. After all, you only have an hour with each participant. You want to get as much valuable and relevant insights as possible. Sometimes it would require a certain level of confidence to not get into small design details but to focus on a bigger topic. This could give you better and more insightful information and views into a market to enable you to make strategic decisions.
  • Understand the reasons behind what triggers a specific behaviour that you observed or heard during the research sessions. For instance, it might be influenced by the custom which they have been following for decades or  it's due to the economic state of the country at that moment. What makes international research interesting yet challenging is that everything you hear or see could have some captivating stories and rationale behind it. A good researcher would have the skill to either ask the right follow up questions to find out the answer or have sufficient experience to investigate and come up with hypotheses which could be validated at a later stage.
  • Receive output that is actionable. Research findings are not useful when there are no actions to follow through. Finding out what the problems are is easy. Getting the ‘so-what’ right is the key, yet harder to do. Tactical recommendations are easy to make (e.g. change the label of a button). Strategic actions (e.g. modify your monetisation strategy) are more complex and require more experience, but they are extremely important for you to do well in a market.
  • Have a clear roadmap. A good, experienced consultant would be able to use the output of the research to advise you on your business roadmap for that specific market, e.g. what your next steps should be for the roll out, what other areas you might want to look into further and when, what are the similarities and differences between that market and your home/other markets.

Doing research outside your home country often involves a higher budget than doing it locally. This is especially true if your team is flying out to view the research to receive first-hand insights. You want to avoid any possible mistakes and make sure you do it right. You want to get as many useful insights as possible to help you make both tactical and strategic decisions.

More than just doing the research

The thing is, understanding a country or culture does not happen solely when you’re set to do the research. It can happen anytime, anywhere.

A well-planned research enables you to go into small and specific details about your target users and if your design works for them. But for a company to be successful and do well in a market, it requires a wider understanding of the country as a whole. The users, of course, are the core but how they behave, interact and think could very much be influenced by their relationships with the setting of their society and country. For example, traditions, legal, social trends, economy and so on. In many cases, they are often interlinking.

How does a good international researcher or consultant build their knowledge about a country and their culture, and learn the ability to relate them to what they see and hear during a research? They need to embed the research mindset in their daily life - anytime, anywhere. However, this is not easily achieved. It very much depends on:

  • Exposure. How much exposure does one have with people from different countries and culture? How much interaction they have in their daily life, personally and professionally? How much attention they paid to the different (and similar) behaviours and expectations in all aspects of life - for example social, family values, thinking. 
  • Mindset. It takes a specific type of person to have a curious personality with a built in capability to observe and ask questions. For example, two people go to Spain for a week holiday. One might come back with the memory of having a great time there, whilst another person might come back with a few new insights into the country and the people that they observed and picked up, even if these insights might just be hypotheses which are yet to be validated. 

These traits and factors bring an additional touch to become a good global user experience researcher.

Do it right

Doing user research in other countries is not just about replicating what and how you do with users in your home country. It’s much more than that. One can do a lot of international research but won’t necessarily be equipped with all these quality, knowledge and skills. Get it right so you can learn most about a country, how you could offer the best experience to their people and stand out in that market.