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How to adjust your research style and conduct thoughtful user research that take the nuances of Arab cultures into account.
[2:11] If you want to build products for everyone, include a more diverse audience in your research.
[6:44] Diversely designed experiences are our right—overcoming a cultural hesitancy to critique “Western” products.
[12:57] Context matters—adjusting your research style to different cultural expectations.
[18:07] Norah's top recruiting tip for recruiting participants from Arabic cultures.
[20:02] How to remain sensitive when doing research in a culture that is not your own.
[31:56] Balancing confusing research logistics with recruiting a diverse population.
Norah Abokhodair is a Senior Program Manager at Microsoft. There, she leads UX research planning and strategy for Microsoft Learning Innovation Studio including projects focused on machine learning, personalization, and AI fairness. Prior to Microsoft, Norah received her PhD at the University of Washington, where her research focused on social media in Arabic cultures.
[00:00:00] Norah:When we think about pervasive technology, such as social media and many of the apps on our cellphone today, a lot of them are mostly developed in Western contexts so the research that informs these features that are being introduced or these apps or this technology in general, even the policies. It's mostly informed by the experiences of people that are not relevant to everyone else in the world.
[00:00:42] Erin: Hello everybody and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we're here with Nora Abokhodair, she's a senior program manager at microsoft. And today we're going to talk about researching Arabic cultures. Something I'm really excited to dig into and probably learn a lot about myself. So thanks so much for joining us Norah.
[00:01:02] Norah: Thank you, Erin.
[00:01:04] Erin: Got JH here too.
[00:01:06] JH: Yeah, I, feel like my role in the show often is to ask the dumb, simple questions. And I feel like I'll be doing a lot of that today because this is just a topic I haven't really thought of at all. And so I think I'm going to learn a lot. I'm excited about it.
[00:01:17] Erin: So, Norah you know, when we first sort of started talking about what we wanted to talk about in this episode, we wanted to draw from your expertise, as we always do, and you have a lot of experience researching Arabic cultures among others. And I thought, well, that sounds kind of niche.
But then when you think about it, 420 million people in the world speak
So not really so niche, after all. And many folks in Arabic cultures are, you know, living in fast-growing markets, which are of course of interest to many companies who would like to be part of those markets. So let's just start from the beginning. should people know?
What's an important thing to know for folks who know where to start are, or thinking about entering a market with Arabic speaking people where, what are some things they should know to get started?
[00:02:10] Norah: Yeah that's a really good question. So one thing just to preface this whole discussion, I think that we tend to not be aware of, is that when we think about pervasive technology, such as social media and many of the apps on our cell phone today, a lot of them are mostly developed in Western contexts is so think about it's either a Western company, developers, designers.
And like we also like, think about the user research aspect of it. That's if any was done. It's mostly also conducted in a similar context as whatever is the closest to the periphery of these companies. So the research that informs these features that are being introduced or these apps or this technology in general, even the policies.
It's mostly informed by the experiences of people that are not relevant to everyone else in the world, so, or maybe share just different experiences. So if we take the notion of privacy, for example, which I really focused a lot on during my PhD. Privacy that is inscribed and technologies and services Are mostly derived from the perspective of technology oriented privileged users.
At least that was the research that supported a lot of the privacy policies. So when I was doing my phD, I quickly noticed just me personally, moving from Saudi Arabia to the us. I quickly noticed that this technology is bringing challenges, and ways and the way that people experience their personal identity, their online privacy, their safety, because there's this mismatch in expectations and values between Arabic or Middle Eastern and Western cultures.
One very clear one is that the middle east is a collectivistic society. The Western cultures tend towards the individualistic side of the spectrum.
So all to say that considering a more diverse set of users is really where we should start from. Like, having that conviction, that awareness that when we are developing a technology and we are targeting a global market, that when we are doing the design, the UX that informs it. The UX research we are from the get-go considering a more diverse range of users and profiles and as a result also cultures and values.
So that's what I would start from the conviction, the awareness.
[00:04:57] JH: Yeah, to build on that a little. I'm just curious, like, you know, I think one thing that has become, you know, much more top of mind for everyone is, the importance of having diverse teams so that different viewpoints are represented during the design phase and discovery phase and all of that.
this a situation where if you are going to be technology that is going to serve a culture and in some way, like you just need that representation on the team? Or a team of Westerners find ways by doing field research and other things to, you know, to internalize those needs and things well enough, does that kinda make sense?
[00:05:29] Norah: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. I want to say actually both because yes, definitely having that one person or a few people on the team that are representatives of other cultures are great at flagging out the discrepancies between the user experience and the actual expectation of the users, especially from non Western cultures.
However, I do think that, I don't know, at least in my experience so far, I found that the workplace, it depends on the team, of course. But I found that not everyone is as vocal or as quick to realize that designing diverse technology is a more inclusive technology is kind of like our right if that makes sense.
So a lot of people shy away from the opportunity of highlighting or raising awareness to that mismatch, that discrepancy.
[00:06:26] Erin: Yeah, Norah you mentioned, designing a diverse experience is our right. I don't think I quoted you exactly, but something like that. And you got my attention. I love how you put that. Who is our there? Is that our, the designer? Is it the person being designed for? Is it something else?
[00:06:44] Norah: Yeah, the person that is being designed for. So I tell you
a story from my research. So when I was doing my research in the PhD program at UW. was focused on understanding privacy self-presentation identity on Facebook for Muslim youth. And I was focused on the Arab Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, Qatar at the time. And I was running these interviews studies and in every interview I was asking users to evaluate the privacy settings page and talk about their experiences with privacy on Facebook in general.
And also like I would ask, would you redesign your experience or this page to meet your expectations, to really protect you in the way you want to be protected? And a lot of the times the users or the participants of my study feel like Facebook is such an American company. And it's not really their right or place to ask or to imagine dictating the experience should be for them. it, it always came across that really, like, I can do that? I can answer that question? So I really all am like they would ask, would you actually share these findings with Facebook? Are they actually going to do something about it? all to say that they really had that they internalized their, I guess, lack of importance or that it's not really their place or their right. Basically internalized their marginalization in research.
[00:08:24] JH: Oh, interesting. Okay. So yeah even when you get them a chance to provide this feedback, there's like a, like a natural hesitancy to be like, it's not my place to tell this company what to do. Is that like a way to summarize it?
[00:08:35] Norah: Yeah.
[00:08:37] Erin: So going with that trend and
[00:08:40] Norah: Yeah.
[00:08:40] Erin: Something like you know, a focus group may be better in these cases than it would be otherwise? And obviously, you know, it has focus, groups have all sorts of shortcomings and aren't the right tool for every job. But just, you know, putting that out there, if there's a collectivist dominant culture, as you mentioned upfront, is there more comfort in say like a group context of sharing opinions or?
[00:09:04] Norah: That's amazing you bring that up because I actually thought focus groups would be ,when I was piloting my methodology, thought focus groups would overcome that challenge and feeling that, oh, if someone is outspoken and is sharing feedback. Then the other person would feel more encouraged to do that.
So I did run a pilot focus group and I definitely noticed it was quite the opposite. People were actually silent because the moment we started talking about privacy invasions and situations everyone wanted to keep that information for themselves. And I understand, I mean, I was extremely aware after the fact that, Hey, these are really sensitive and personal topics that they don't want to share with each other.
Especially as it's a collectivist society. Reputation is key. So people don't like to share out loud. So then what I did actually to mitigate for that, I then started experimenting with. You know, like collage methods, visual elicitation methods. So I brought a lot of just like visual aids and started asking people to leverage these visual aids to, reconstruct the page, the privacy settings page, their profile page there, like, and that right away.
Got them going. So we ended up having about, I ended up having about 35 interviews, for my dissertation with A lot of beautifully constructed collages of how they re-envision their Facebook experience and their Facebook pages. Because then what the collage helped with and these visual tools helped with that it gave them an opportunity to just to feel like the agency of reconstructing and constructing they didn't feel that like intensity of being interrogated or being asked to answer sensitive questions.
Also as the visual aids were used, they were narrating off the bat stories about like, I'm using this picture because I remember when I did this I got comments from my cousins that my picture was revealing. So I wish I had this filter or this added experience to change it on the spot or these like different privacy settings so I can limit access to my account.
It really just gave them a lot of I guess provoked memories and reminded them of certain situations and just the agency to reconstruct and construct their experiences. So definitely recommend that method in situations where users or participants in interviews feel confronted or feel less cooperative or maybe also the rapport wasn't built fast enough. So, using methods like that really helps.
[00:12:00] JH: I'm curious for you, as the researcher, with a foot in both cultural worlds. Has it been, have you, is it easy for you to like, you know, go out and try to solicit these kinds of sensitive topics from people? Or is that something you've had to kind of think through for yourself and adjust your own style?
[00:12:57] Norah: Yeah, thanks for asking that. I definitely learned a lot from this process. So being part of the culture and speaking the language was kind of like a double edge situation for me. A positive and negative. negative, was because again like the similar to the focus groups, people felt why do I trust this researcher? And share this information?
I have to also mention the fact that using consent forms, about confidentiality and privacy again, really didn't do what it does here in the US because more of like, I trust a group culture that relies on the word, if that makes sense. They actually were terrified of signing consent forms and talking about confidentiality and all of that. They wanted to hear from me. I'm never going to share this information outside of this session. And you have my word for it.
So I definitely continuously adjusted my style because I continuously learned about my population based on my participants' needs.
And then there were also these situations with opposite genders. Like when I would be doing an interview with a male identifying participant I felt like the conversations definitely were less open and engaging than it was with female identifying participants. So I remember we had this pause, my advisor and I, we were talking about what if he runs the interviews with male identifying participants and I do it with the female. And then we really interrogated that thought a while and decided that no, we'll continue doing it the way we're doing it. And just maybe report that and the methods, implications, and limitations of the study, because we were very curious to see whether that was just part of piloting the type of participants, the demographics definitely played a huge role.
So if they were educated in the west, if they had experience working in mixed companies, cause remember that, like I was working in the Arab Gulf and at the time around like 2015, 2014, gender segregation was still huge there. Not so much now. But definitely being a female interviewing males was not generating a lot. I had to adjust my protocol and recruitment to participants who either worked in mixed gender companies and have been educated in the west or had any of that exposure because it just made the interviews much easier, fluid and, and fluent in the same time because my gender did not have any effect in the process.
[00:15:49] Erin: Well, there's so much to unpack there. So interesting on the one hand, when you're doing qualitative research and you have a moderator, right? Like part of what you're trying to do is get as objective insight as possible. And on the other hand, there is always a moderator and you don't, you know, you, you can never fully take that away. And can you learn more from noting what happens based on who might be the moderator, particularly in a culture that might be new or are you trying to just create ultimate comfort and rapport with participants in this study? Interesting questions. And going back to what you're talking about with informed consent or with, know, filling out consent forms.
I think that's a popular topic, at least in the research circles that I follow these days. And I think perhaps an implicit assumption is that informed consent as manifested in a consent form of some sort is inherently sort of ethically right. Things to do, but there is this interesting aspect you point out of.
You know, a form that is signed feels invasive or uncomfortable to the subject signing it
[00:16:56] Norah: Yeah.
[00:16:56] Erin: A little wrinkle there.
[00:16:58] Norah: Yeah, completely. Like I remember definitely having to preface always before participants signed that also their signature is not going to be shared outside. And I remember also being asked if not participating or participating is going to impact their chances of studying abroad or getting jobs and these companies.
So again, like there's always this fear of, what are the implications of participating in this research? Just because research again, also, these are populations that have not been researched very much. So the whole research culture and Process of interrogation. And I don't want to call it interrogation, but like that back and forth questioning and asking personal questions, like, hasn't been really much done or common in that culture.
So, I feel like it's definitely changing right now. So there are more people that are interested in participating. Recruitment definitely was much harder at the time. But now it's much more understandable. I just don't want to discourage companies and researchers from really doing the diligence.
It's really worth it, And there are so many methods and so many ways to tap into that market. I mean, just recruiting on Twitter alone. Saudi Arabia and actually Arabic speaking countries. I think out of the top 10, you'll find six or seven countries making the top 10. Saudi Arabia was number one. Egypt was number two for a very long time. So, we are talking about Twitter, which is like a global platform, but also mostly developed in the US so all to say that the top users and active users are ones that are from Arabic speaking cultures and countries.
So it is a great method to recruit for participation in research studies.
[00:18:56] JH: That's a good tip. Is part of that too, that like, you know, one, it's just a place where you can find people, which is obviously a big part of research and recruiting,
[00:19:04] JH: the people who have self-selected to engage and participate on Twitter are maybe like, kind of in that Venn diagram between like Western and in other cultures and like they have maybe a little bit more comfort with some of this stuff or am I reading into and making assumptions that are not fair?
[00:19:18] Norah: No, you are definitely heading the right direction. I definitely think it has to do with their willingness to speak up their minds. And Twitter is a space for that.
[00:19:29] JH: Yes, it is.
[00:19:30] Norah: So, they actually feel like, being invited to participate in research studies, fill out surveys is a way to celebrate that aspect of their personalities. So I definitely was always very successful in recruiting through Twitter.
[00:19:47] JH: Cool. And then a big thought that I have here is like, you know, as a well-meaning westerner who's not going to be familiar with all the different considerations here in terms of, you know, culture, religion, language, and all the nuance, even beyond all that.
If I were to try to conduct the research and, you know, I landed on a methodology that seems promising. How do I go about trying to build some rapport or facilitate something in a way where like, I'm not going to inadvertently, you know, offend somebody or cause some trauma? Just cause I don't know some of the norms or some of the expectations, like, is it that I just need to really educate myself beforehand? Or is there a way that I can try to really upfront state like, Hey, if I do anything that, you know, you find objectionable please tell me, like, I don't know. How do you actually figure that part out?
[00:20:31] Norah: Yeah, no, you are. This is such a wonderful approach. So I collaborated with another researcher who was from the US a while back. And, kind of like comparing notes and we noticed right off the bat that she was getting a lot more personal stories about like, Culturally sensitive topics than I was. Let's put it that way.
So definitely what we concluded with that she was perceived as an outsider who is not a threat to their personal privacy or to the reputation to the participants personal privacy of reputation. So I really actually think that definitely prefacing with will intention and Curiosity of wanting to learn more and to understand a certain topic is the goal. And expressing that, that freedom of maybe like passing on a question or refusing to answer something is completely free and open.
I think that allowing for that space and prefacing with it definitely helps participants feel at ease and definitely builds rapport faster. But I definitely want to mention the fact that between her And I. I felt like she was definitely tapping into the stories than I was. I don't know if that's a common theme. Insider outsider really is the reason here. But I definitely remember that being a case. So we actually, that's something, we also communicated in the published paper that outsider perspective or interviewer had more of the, culturally sensitive stories than and experiences shared that then the insider.
I, well, maybe just to underscore what I mean by culturally sensitive. a lot of the Arab, Muslim cultures drinking and and dating and, partying and all of these, like, I guess experiences that go beyond or outside of the islamic culture are considered taboo. But a lot of the youth that we were talking with for that study really had experienced all of that. The population that we were studying were students living abroad or had experienced living abroad. And they all shared stories with her about posting a picture at a club, for example. That picture was viewed by a cousin or a relative. And, it caused this strife in the whole family for just one that made it outside of the context that it was supposed to be shared in. She heard a lot of stories like that. So I just wonder if maybe outsider researchers might have another, like an opportunity actually for this research.
Again, I just, because I want to encourage everyone to try and expand the diversity and the inclusion criteria of their research protocols and recruitment.
[00:23:43] Erin: Yeah. It's interesting. It's sort of like some parallels to what you were talking about with the focus groups where. There is in this collectivist society. I mean, there's peer pressure to be good and to fit the mold group. And if maybe you're interacting with someone outside the group, maybe there's, you know, more of a comfort there with being honest and not being judged or things along those lines.
Yeah that makes sense. One of the things you talked about, we're talking about Arabic culture as a group. But to kind of drill down into the taxonomy. With 420 million people, there's obviously, you know, many subgroups. We're probably not gonna get into a ton of detail about all of those subgroups, but could you walk us through some of the differences we might not think about?
[00:24:26] Norah: Yeah. I mean, the differences are going to be in let's see how many buckets, but basically there are religious groups within the Arabic context. So there are Muslims, there are Christians, and then there are all the other religions. I really don't want to exclude anyone here. So definitely the religious aspect of Arabic culture is important to consider. Because that will have different implications and will have different results.
Another one has to do with the dialect. So, if the focus is on localization, language support, any of that. Focus on dialects and understanding the different dialects is so important. So there are, again, like a lot of different dialects. The Arab Gulf speaks a different dialect, Egypt speaks a different dialect, Lavant is different, so again, knowledge and comprehension or understanding at least of that.
You also have different regions that have different implications on everyday practices. So, like I said, maybe one example is in the Arab Gulf at least up until very recently, traditional norms and those of like Bedouin culture were deeply ingrained, and you can see it, the moment you land in Saudi Arabia or Qatar or in Kuwait. Like you can right away see that in the culture and the way every day life is. Egypt has a very different experience or everyday life practices Lebanon the same. So, I remember I was having this discussion with a researcher at a company. I'm not going to share the name, but I was mentioning this whole difference in privacy experiences.
And I was talking about, now, in some Arab regions there is a lot of focus and fear of gender and context collapse basically. So women wear the hijab and when they are sharing their pictures without the hijab that they have like very strict privacy settings. The hijab can also, can practice differently. So like in some cultures, the hijab is just covering the hair and in others it's covering the face. So like that whole conservatism spectrum is very important to understand and be included in the way these technologies are designed, especially ones that are focused on image sharing and profile pictures. And I remember that person replying to me saying, yeah. We definitely did a very comprehensive study in Morocco to understand all the different aspects of religiosity and the Arabic culture. And it really took me by surprise. I thought that they were, I don't know. I think I thought they were joking, but I also realized that it's just a lack of knowledge that really needs to be comprehensive. It really needs to be at least a sample from each region, rather than just focusing on one region, because that would just skew the results to that region's practices.
[00:27:37] Erin: Right, so depending on what you're trying to do, right? Like if you're trying to enter the Moroccan market, that might be appropriate. If you're trying to enter the Arabic market, then that's a different story.
[00:27:49] Norah: So just all to say that definitely like being sensitive and also yeah, comprehensive in the way the market is being tackled.
[00:27:58] JH: A big fork in the road we haven't really gotten into yet on the language front, right. Is the left to right versus right to left dynamic, which seems like it's making my head spin already. Just thinking about it. How, from just like a research and design perspective, do you even go about accounting for that?
Cause it's, I assume it's much more involved than just, you know, the text from one way to the other. It seems like it's probably gotta be a really holistic thing. You can.
[00:28:21] Norah: Yeah. So, definitely localization is now expanding beyond, just like left to right, right to left considerations. So we're looking into like efficiency and effectiveness and what tools are being used more like, are people on laptops or people are on desktops or using their mobile phone more.
So just getting a little bit deeper into the context where the experience is being used generates much more useful information than just thinking about the screen going left to right or right to left for a particular user. Does that make sense?
[00:29:01] JH: Yeah, totally. Yeah, So it's like, it's not just how do we take this one screen? It's like, you have to be aware of the whole context. So like, you gotta start I guess like any proper design does, right? Like start a level up before you jump to some of the solution-y stuff.
[00:29:15] Norah: Yeah. So I'll give you an example. In the current experience we are designing, it's very focused on students. And one of the, I guess main features it does is that it extracts skills from a student's resume. So it helps them understand what skills they currently have. And we are definitely in the process of globalizing and entering the International market with this feature this whole application, actually.
And, one of the things that we've been thinking a lot about is do we just translate skills from, let's say communication to what it means in Arabic? Or do we need to take a different approach in this and not just go literal and actually like, understand exactly what they are looking to achieve this feature And then design the extraction that meets that expectation?
So we landed at doing more of an exploratory to understand, okay, now that we're tapping into the international market, do they really want this feature? So we know that here some students use it for different reasons. One is to update their linkedIn profile. Is it going to be used the same way? Are LinkedIn profiles as important in other cultures? And then how does that impact the whole experience in terms of redesigning it or like localizing it?
So, so again, just some considerations to take into account before just jumping into the hypothesis that no it's just left to right. And that's all we need to accommodate for. It really is a lot bigger in cause it does affect the experience and the usage and the delight of the user.
[00:31:02] Erin: Great. So we've talked about some of the sort of dimensions of culture, of language localization, nationality, and then there's all these spectrums that may or may not map to those different dimensions, right? So there's, you know, the conservative spectrum, the religious spectrum and all these different things that might influence how you might want to conduct research with a group of people or with individuals within that group.
How do you work with those dimensions and build your methodologies based on whatever constraints you might have, right? So budget constraints, time constraints, travel, budget constraints. You know, whatever they might be. There's a lot there, but how do you kind of work with your constraints internally with your project?
And with the group of people you're doing research with, to come up with a viable study, that's going to give you, you know, good results.
[00:31:56] Norah: Yeah so logistics are definitely the hardest have to say, especially like we're talking in our international research like there's a whole group at microsoft that continuously brings in these challenges as topics of discussion, because we are trying to really expand our circle, but we also want to empower every researcher the right tools, to overcome these challenges.
So some of the advice that we heard, or some of the challenges we heard is definitely like, let's say, related to budget, like someone can't really travel or like the team can't really all travel to, to do this research. Even pre COVID. What we ended up doing is, or recommending, running studies. So we use Teams, Zoom, to run these studies and work with recruitment companies or agencies within the culture or within the region. And those
easier to find Through the sales offices and maybe this is also very specific to bigger companies that have presence outside. But I definitely found resources also online when wanting to like, let's say recruit participants for studies in a certain region.
So all to say that recruitment, there are so many ways. As I mentioned earlier Twitter, there’s also these agencies that we can give them the recruitment profile or the criteria for selection and they will help and they definitely have the participants. So that's all really great. And then you have Running those studies remotely rather than in person. In some I found that running remote studies put participants at ease faster, because there isn't that like face-to-face which might actually be an advantage, an added advantage now that we are in COVID days and travel is not as easy or more restricted than before.
We've been also using a lot of like surveys, so starting with like unmoderated. To just get a sense in a quick pulse like validate a certain hypothesis or just this is not, we're not talking PhD level research like rigor. We're rigorous enough, But, also like enough to just get us exploratory results to move the feature. Just enough.
been Trying our best to just maneuver whenever we find the obstacle and think about, okay, where's the opportunity? How can we bypass this obstacle? So if, like I said, if we can't do even remote interviews, we don't have time. We have time constraints. do like a quick usertesting.com study and set the criteria on certain regions and then also like to accompany that with a survey. And that has actually been working for us like magic.
[00:35:01] Erin: Well, I obviously, you know, we have not covered. doing research with Arabic cultures in its entirety in the last hour. But you know, final parting thoughts for folks you know, that are getting started or want to dig deeper in, into this culture and these markets, parting words of advice?
[00:35:19] Norah: Do it, just do it. There is really a lot to learn. It sounds cliche, but really designing for the marginalized is designing for everyone. So if we're thinking, I think this was used to encourage accessibility research. And I also think it applies to diverse research, international research, and Arabic cultures. If they are considered in the design process and the research, then it will be considering everyone, Do it. There are so many resources out there.
I am also very happy to share my experience in detail with anyone that is interested in learning more. There are a lot of like, emerging researchers in the Chi and the CSCW community. And, ACM in general, who are studying Arabic cultures and just in general, like more international cultures.
And just do your research, even if general research to understand the differences, the nuances between each region, between the languages, between the religions will give you just a little bit more Understanding and also acceptability when entering these research fields.
[00:36:35] Erin: Fantastic. Just do it. I love that. It's a, you're not gonna get it perfect out of the gate, but trying will take you a long way. So thanks. for all your advice on helping get people set up on the right foot. And it was so great to have you here today. Thank you so much.
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Left brained, right brained. Customer and user advocate. Writer and editor. Lifelong learner. Strong opinions, weakly held.