International Ethnografic Studies

Understanding international users without language skills

International companies are increasingly trying to respond to the individual cultural characteristics of the individual sales markets. For example, we researched the television viewing habits of Germans for a company from the USA, or found out how the topic of savings is treated in this country for a European bank. The ethnographic study was particularly suitable for an initial basic study in order to get to know the country and its people better and to incorporate local circumstances into product development. 

In these and other ethnographic studies that we have been able to conduct with international product teams, we have been able to gather some experience that we would now like to share here:

1. Roles on site: It is particularly useful for one or two members of the international company to participate in the field phase in addition to the moderator, who speaks the local language. This ensures that the local impressions can be recorded personally by the product team, thus creating a completely different level of empathy than if only the finished report is used. This has also been confirmed to us time and again by customers. Since the members of the product team do not normally speak the local language, they are briefly introduced to the participants by the moderator and otherwise tend to remain in the background. In most cases, however, our international project participants took photos and notes, and passed on follow-up questions to the moderator. However, some participants also dare to answer directly in English, which allows a natural exchange regarding possible follow-up questions.

2. Interpreter: To ensure that the international product team also understands what the participants are saying, we are always accompanied by an interpreter who simultaneously translates the conversation live on site. The situation is a bit unusual for some participants at first, as their statements are translated again in the same room slightly offset, but people get used to the situation relatively quickly. However, in order for the translation not to be disturbing, the interpreter should find a good balance so that the international team members can easily follow the conversation, but the participants do not feel disturbed by the volume of the translation. Here it is also helpful if it is agreed in advance that the interpreter and international clients will sit closely together.

3. Technology: We also clarify in advance which audio tracks are to be included in the video material. Often, only the interpreter's translated soundtrack is of interest to the international team. Since the normal microphone of a video camera picks up all sounds in the room equally, it is recommended in this case to use a lavalier microphone. The interpreter then holds this microphone directly in front of his or her mouth so that, if possible, only his or her translation is recorded and the original conversation can only be heard slightly in the background. Alternatively, the interpreter can speak into a recording device. We then combine this audio track with the video material using video editing software. We also always record the conversation in the original sound with an additional recording device so that details that may have been lost in the translation can be retrieved again if necessary.

An ethnographic study can thus be transferred to different countries with a little preparation, providing the product team with valuable insights into the world of users directly on site that would be impossible to convey through mere video recordings. Through a global research network, such as the UX Fellows network established by Facit, studies can be quickly transferred to other countries through proven partnerships with local research institutions.

Michael Wörmann

Moritz Flues

Moritz is especially interested in ethnographic research approaches that focus on the users' context of use. He sees the observation and questioning of individual behaviour as a central aspect of user experience research.