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BlogAwkward Silences

Cross Cultural Research with Elsa Ho of Uber, Leia Atkinson of Shopify, and Chui Chui Tan of Beyō Global

This week, we're launching three episodes of Awkward Silences. We talked all about how researchers can do great work internationally.

Carrie Boyd

I don’t think I fully appreciated bagels until I was 22. Growing up, bagels were a staple in my house. I’d wake up in the morning and grab one before middle school, look forward to the holidays when my family splurged on fresh cinnamon sugar bagels from our local bakery, and nurse my college hangovers with eggs and cheese sandwiched between everything bagels. Then I spent some time after college living in Thailand. You know what rural Thailand really lacks? Good bagels. Or any bagels for that matter. Many of my Thai friends had no idea what bagels even were, or why I was so upset I couldn’t have them anymore. While being deprived of my favorite breakfast food was annoying, what was more surprising was the fact that I had never even considered that Thailand wouldn’t have them. 

The society that we grow up in frames our reality not only structurally, but culturally, linguistically, etc. If we don't look at countries or look at participants within those frameworks, then we can lose a lot of the nuances and they are going to be a lot of misunderstandings. 

Leia Atkinson, Senior Market Researcher at Shopify. 

Bagels are a small example of how growing up in the United States shaped my reality, but they’re a bit more concrete than some of the other cultural elements we all grow up with. For researchers diving into new markets, or building products for international use, it can be difficult to know where to start learning about the communities, countries, and cultures you’ll be building for. 

This week, we wanted to talk to people who have spent their careers conducting international and cross-cultural research. Since this topic is so big, we wanted to talk to more than just one person, so we talked to three guests about how they conduct cross-cultural research. The first is Elsa Ho, a Senior UX Researcher at Uber who works on airports and events. Before Uber, Elsa conducted international research both as a consultant and in-house at places like Microsoft, Fred Hutch, and Isobar. 


Our second researcher is Leia Atkinson, Senior Market Researcher at Shopify; the quote above is from our chat with her. At Shopify, she works on improving the vendor experience internationally. She has a Masters Degree in Cultural Anthropology and spent two years living in Japan. 


Our third researcher, Chui Chui Tan, literally wrote a book called International User Research. Her company, Beyō Global, consults with companies like Spotify, Marriott, Asana, Google, and Clarks to help them build products that thrive in international markets. Each researcher we talked to had nuance to contribute to the conversation about how cross-cultural research gets done, why it matters, and how researchers can maximize their learnings on a research trip abroad. 


We learned so much from our three researchers about how to handle cross cultural research, so for this blog post, I’m gonna mix it up a little. I’ll start with Chui Chui’s framework, which outlines how to choose what you need to learn from your international research in the first place, then I’ll move on to the more practical bits about how to actually make everything happen.

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How to choose your research questions for international research

Chui Chui has a system for choosing what your research needs to address when you start an international project. She calls it the three levels of culturalization. The first is the fundamental needs, then basic wants, then detailed desires. 

Fundamental needs

These fundamental needs are things that you can’t get wrong as a company entering a new market. These are political, religious, social, or cultural elements that can offend people if you get them wrong. Usually, you can learn about these through secondary research (reading about the country or culture) and expand upon your knowledge by observing people from that culture in action. An example of this in action is when a Tesco store in London, which was located within blocks of a mosque, placed bacon flavored Pringles on a display reading “Ramadan Mubarak.” Eating pork is forbidden in Islam, so the display offended many people who were shopping in the store. 

Basic wants

Basic wants are things that may not offend your target audience, but reflect things your customers may need or prefer in order to use your product. They’re not quite fundamental, but they’re pretty important to your end-users. Chui Chui illustrated this by pointing out that, in Japanese culture, names are presented Last Name/First Name instead of First Name/Last Name. Formatting names this way is respectful to Japanese culture and makes it easier for Japanese people to input the correct information into your product. In fact, the Japanese minister, Kono Taro, recently called for international outlets to format names this way in order to respect Japanese culture. 

Detailed desires

These things are the smaller nuances that really make your product feel like it’s at home in an international setting. Chui Chui said it’s what most international research seeks to learn about. It’s those little things that vary from market to market, depending on the cultural context. For example, when Chui Chui was conducting research for Mariott, she found that some countries and cultures preferred different branding and offerings. For example, European audiences wanted offers for city breaks over the weekend, while Chinese consumers wanted packaged holidays to international locations.


In order to build products that thrive in international and cross-cultural environments, you have to start from the fundamental needs, then build your way up to the detailed desires of your consumers. If you start off by offending the whole country or culture, it doesn’t matter if the thing you build is the best thing ever. Everyone’s already turned off by the offensive thing you did. So when you’re building products or breaking into new markets, it’s best to start at the bottom of the pyramid and work your way up once you’ve learned about each block. 

How to conduct a cross-cultural research project

Start with a research question

Like any research project, you’ll need to start with a research question that is specific, actionable, and practical so you know when you’ve answered it properly. Think about what you’re trying to learn and what needs may affect that. If you’re moving into an entirely new market you may need to ask some fundamental questions, then move into basic ones, and then some detailed ones on top of that. If you’re building on previous research, or something that already exists, you may just need to examine basic or fundamental questions. Chui Chui outlined an example of this in our chat with her. 

Last year I was in Japan for a period of time, but it was for two clients—Spotify and Asana. It sounds like, "Oh, we're just going in to understand the Japanese market." It sounds like, "Okay. Both companies want to know the same thing."
Actually, when we go in, you have to go in with a different mindset. For example, Asana is a work management tool, you might want to go in and think about, "Okay, what other cultural elements that we talked about would actually influence the use of the products?" For example, in Japan hierarchy is extremely important in their corporate culture and status. Like how members interact with each other and how they expect others to interact with them on the same level and a higher level. All of those things are going to influence how people use a tool like Asana. Then what does that mean to Asana?
Whereas these two things I just talked about, nothing to do with Spotify. They don't really care about hierarchy, they don't care about, to a certain extent, the decision by consensus. So what are the things that you have to think about? It's more about media and attitude towards paying and subscriptions. There are different things that you need to look into when you're going into the market.

Recruiting your participants

Recruiting participants is hard enough at home, so trying to do it abroad is a whole different beast. Leia, Elsa, and Chui Chui all recommended using local agencies to recruit the right participants for your study, along with making use of internal contacts you may already have. Leia recommended giving agencies a very specific list of what you’re looking for in your participants, so you don’t have to waste time recruiting again once you’ve arrived. She also recommended a tactic called snowballing. Snowballing means you ask the participants you do recruit who else they know who may be a good fit for your study. Chances are, they can put you in touch with the right people, especially if the group you’re researching is specialized. She also recommends paying participants in their local currency, so your incentive carries more weight and is easier to use. 

Conducting sessions with a translator

If you’re traveling to a different country to conduct your research, you may need to make use of a translator. This ensures that the participant can express themselves fully in their native language, and you don’t get a biased sample by only sourcing participants who also speak your language. Elsa offered some great advice about how to deal with translators and how to ensure you’re getting the full picture, even if you’re using a translator. 

Whether you want simultaneous translation or you want more of, user saying one thing and a translator translates. Then you say something and a translator translates back. They are just a lot of details there. Sometimes I notice that some translators like to summarize what users said, instead of translating word by word. My preference is, I want to know what exactly the users said. So I would tell the translator it doesn't matter if what they said doesn't make sense, just tell me what they said.
So much of the user researcher’s job is to decode things that might not seem important on the surface or the little sort of micro insights. You're losing by going through one level of interpretation already if they're summarizing.
Also where the translators sit is important, if it is like in the meeting room kind of setting. Because if the translator sits right next to a user and you are a little bit far from them, there's a high chance that the user will just look at the translator and then just talk to him or her directly. So it will be hard for you to be engaged in a conversation.

Immersing yourself in the culture beyond the research

There are many things about a culture that you can’t just ask people about. They may not be able to articulate exactly what you’re able to observe as an outsider, since to them, this is just normal life. All of our researchers recommended taking some time outside of your research to walk around, take public transport, and even go grocery shopping. These things will teach you a lot about the culture you’re observing. It can also help cut costs, since international research can rack up a pretty hefty bill. Leia recommended staying in Airbnbs and cooking meals for yourself to learn more about the everyday life of the participants you’re trying to learn about. Elsa recommended taking public transport, connecting with your counterparts if your company has a local office there, and chatting with the locals. These things can be a part of your research as well as your actual research session, and passing up on the opportunity to explore and immerse yourself means you may miss key observations. 

Leia, however, warned about the danger of diving in too much. Culture shock is real, and if you find yourself overwhelmed, having some things that are familiar can help you cope. For example, when I was living in Thailand, I would eat a McDonalds double cheeseburger when I felt especially homesick. Though McDonalds wasn’t really my jam at home, it became a great safety blanket when I was feeling overwhelmed. It was something that was the same in both the US and Thailand, even though they’re thousands of miles apart.


Carrie Boyd

Content Creator

Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.

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