Nine Tips for Planning User Research in Foreign Countries

by Carina Kuhr - 6 Apr 2017

Zalando is active in 15 European markets. In addition to an array of other user testing activities, in 2016 we performed field research in France, UK, Italy, Switzerland and Germany to get a better understanding of the differences in consumer behavior and the local needs of our customers. We have experimented with different set-ups on how to conduct local interviews and after successfully organising 77 of them, we have the following advice to offer about planning field research in different countries.

The set-up of the research

As an in-house UX research team, our ambition is always to do as much research on our own and outsource as little as possible to agencies or freelancers. We believe this most effectively embeds insights into the organization and is therefore the more sustainable approach. Furthermore, it is well in line with our objective to become a truly customer-centric company.

We reached out to all of our market teams within Zalando and put together experts from different departments to join us on our 2-3 day field research trips.

This is how our field trips looked like overall:

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The goal of the research: Discovery

In comparison to our usability tests -- which aim at evaluating concrete features -- we took a more exploratory approach here and wanted to learn about the characteristics of local shopping behavior. To prepare for the research trip we consulted our market research, customer satisfaction, and customer care departments. Based on this we formed assumptions about our local customers’ pain points.

Our aim for every field trip was not only confirming or rejecting our assumptions, but more importantly to derive a customer journey map that shows us all the pain points we need to fix or create solutions for.

Thus, the discussions that we had with customers were focussed on their general (online and offline) fashion shopping behavior and their perception of our service, as well as the service that competitors offer. With every customer we conducted a 1.5 hour insight interview about general shopping behavior, but also included a little on-site test of Zalando and local competitors.

This is what we learned about the execution of field trips with up to 16 colleagues.

Learnings

Include a variety of cities and areas in your research
Once we narrowed down the markets we wished to focus on for this exercise, deciding on specific countries was not a tough decision. However, choosing a place for our field research in these countries turned out to be more complicated. Should we go where most of our active customers are? Or should we rather interview non-customers or even the ones that used Zalando once and never came back? Should we go to the really big cities or focus on the countryside? Which areas are most and least representative for their country? What about travelling connections to and from Berlin, and shouldn’t we choose a city with a good public transport system? After all, we were 12-16 Zalando colleagues with a limited amount of time for a research trip.

In the end, the cities we chose were well-thought through compromises of each of the above mentioned considerations.

Some things that we learned along the way were that we wanted to increase the diversity of answers and get a better picture of the needs of urban as well as rural customers. After the first two field trips, we made sure we included different cities and more rural areas in our research.

Work with customer-facing colleagues to recruit participants
Because of time constraints, we worked together with external partners who scheduled the customer interviews for us. They provided a good service, but we had to give up control over the quality of the participants. In one case, our recruiting partner was not able to find enough customers for us and we spontaneously decided to ask people on the street if they would have time for a coffee and a discussion about online shopping.

In the future, we want to work more closely together with our own customer-facing departments and set up our own recruiting processes.

Get your colleagues on board
For us it was extremely beneficial to invite colleagues from a variety of departments to our research trip. Not only did we find a lot of native speakers in our local market teams that made it possible to conduct interviews in the local language, but we were also exposed to a more holistic view of local market needs from a brand, commercial, operations and customer care perspective.

Tip: If your company has a customer care team, try to convince some of your customer care agents to join the research. They are trained to speak to customers and naturally do a very good job in conducting interviews. If your service operates in different countries, you will most probably also find native speakers in customer care.

Give colleagues a crash course in UX research and manage expectations
Of course, not everybody was trained in research and conducting user interviews. For some of our colleagues this was the first time they had participated in something like this. We spent some time on a user research crash course, explaining to everybody involved about why we do what we do, how it is done, what to pay attention to and finally, what to avoid in an interview. We also planned interview practice sessions and provided feedback. This helped our colleagues to improve their technical interview skills and also made them more confident about meeting customers in real life.

Prepare all the material and send reminders
The more lean and efficient you plan your research to be, the better you need to prepare it. Since we travelled with a group of 12-16 colleagues, we needed to make the research trip itself as short as possible to save resources. We split up in groups of three and conducted the interviews in parallel. This way, we were able to conduct up to 18 interviews in two days and our colleagues only needed to spend 2.5 days of their work week on tour.

We did not want to leave anything to chance, so we tried to equip everybody with everything they needed:

  • We set up calendar invites for the research teams with the address, phone number, and a short description of the interviewee
  • We provided everybody with an English and national version of the interview guide
  • We set up Google folders and templates to upload photos and interview notes directly after the interviews
  • We sent reminders to our colleagues to upload their interview notes
  • We created a WhatsApp group to answer urgent questions and share early interesting customer quotes

Plan the commute beforehand
Navigating an unknown city can be extremely stressful, especially when you are a bigger group of people and under time pressure. Often, our first interviews would start a few hours after arrival at the airport, so we would make sure that we looked up all the addresses beforehand and planned our commutes thoroughly. It sometimes took up to 2 hours (London) to get to an in-home interview and we did not want to leave anything to chance.

Book tables for dinner and debrief
With tight schedules of three interviews per day, there was often little or no time to gather and discuss interview insights in between, so we always made sure that we had some time in the evening to go out for dinner and debrief. We usually updated each other by introducing the person we’ve interviewed to the rest of the group and give a summary of what we learned about their special characteristics and shopping behavior during the interview.

Take pictures
Taking pictures is something that you often forget as a researcher because you are so immersed in the interview. For later buy-in of decision makers, but also for a general illustration of research insights, it is extremely helpful to have photos of the interviewees. This makes them more real and creates empathy.

Share the results widely
Research trips of this scale raise high expectations among colleagues in the respective teams. In the beginning we underestimated how many parties would benefit from our insights and made the mistake of only sharing the insights with the people that were involved. When we started to invite more people to our presentations and share results more openly throughout the organization, we noticed a positive influence on the interest in user research and an increase of buy-in for what we do.

Take these tips to heart and take home -- like we did -- great insights about your international customers. Use them to build products that your customers love.

If you’d like more information about our user research techniques and tips, find me on Twitter at @careeeeena.

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