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Around the Globe: Lab Research in the United States and Europe

By Michelle Borea and Kellie May

Thirty years ago in the United States, the business of collecting consumer-based research data was typified by a housewife recruiting members of a local organization (for example a PTA) to chat in her home with a psychologist about the joys and tribulations of using a client’s product or service. Today, the industry has been consolidated by a handful of national companies with facilities scattered across major metropolitan markets in the U.S., each offering management of complex recruitment and hosting logistics.

In Europe and elsewhere, conducting lab research is a less structured process. Physical facilities (with one-way mirrors, modern electronics, and telecom capabilities) are generally found only within full-service usability consulting firms with their own labs, research houses, or advertising agencies. These companies may be reluctant to take on “outsider” projects, and client attendees may feel unwelcome. Independent facilities that don’t do in-house recruiting can be found in the more developed countries, but their technical offerings may be limited.

Outside the U.S., recruiting respondents is often done by hiring external recruiters, each with their own jealously guarded database of potential respondents. Putting a project together may mean coordinating the efforts of at least two operational entities—facilities and recruiting.
There are also other factors to consider—perhaps even more for usability research than for market research projects:

Available Technology
Facilities outside the U.S. have relatively little of the technology that U.S. practitioners expect for usability projects. For example, there are few places in Europe that have video conferencing and video streaming on site. When such capabilities are available, they are frequently offered through proprietary systems driven by varying formats, protocols, and internet connectivity bandwidth and speed, all of which makes the process risky in terms of reliable data delivery—real-time or after the fact. Additional fees may also be involved when using video conferencing or streaming providers. The U.S. tends to be more uniform and accustomed to cross-facility coordination of technology.

Even the simplest of technologies can be costly in unequipped venues. For example, many European facilities charge for audio and video recording, which is usually included in the package in many U.S. facilities. Here again, you need to consider video formats and copying data to your client’s format. Also, keep in mind that for sessions conducted in other languages, a simultaneous translator’s voice will be needed on the audio track.
When conducting multi-city projects around the globe, we have found it easier to hire a third party telecommunications group to coordinate such activities so that results can be recorded and provided in a uniform format compatible with the client’s needs.

It helps, of course, if your usability engineer is technologically self-sufficient. This is a critical point when projects are being conducted in remote locations rather than in lab facilities. The logistics of coordinating technically complex work in people’s homes or public places makes a technically savvy and resourceful usability engineer all but essential.

Facility Size
Even though many European facilities are continually improving, they tend to be smaller than those found in the U.S., and viewing capacities may be restricted. All of this may be changing, but, at the present time, spacious, U.S.-style facilities are found only in a few major European markets and are in high demand. Spacious viewing rooms are more often found at a full-service supplier’s location, which may not fit your research needs. To ensure the space you require is available, ask appropriate questions while booking a facility.

Finding the Right Participants
Finding the right participants in one culture can be quite different from finding them in another culture. For example, we recently had a telecom company ask us to recruit teenagers who were new users of cell phones in geographically dispersed markets. We could find these individuals easily in the U.S., but the task was almost impossible in markets where cell phones have been adopted faster and more completely than in the U.S.

Participant Work Commitments
U.S. recruiters can normally persuade respondents to participate in a study during the day. Incentives are typically high to support these work interruptions. In Europe and Asia, however, people have much less flexibility with their jobs, so taking time off to participate in research is less likely. The business day in Europe usually begins and ends later than what is typical in the U.S. and Asia. Therefore, researchers need to plan on having more test days than in the U.S. and utilize evening appointments to accommodate respondents’ work commitments.

Vacations and Holidays
Another detail to consider when planning international tests are vacations and holidays. These can differ greatly between countries. Planning research during the summer months in Europe can be very challenging because entire countries go on vacation for weeks at a time. Although some people may remain at work, they become a skeleton staff and are less available to participate in research.

Travel
Travel isn’t as easy in other parts of the world as it is across European Union nations. Recently, we did a study for a major international corporation We had to postpone the study because the client didn’t realize they needed visas to enter the countries in which the study was conducted. Certainly not all countries require them, but some of the major markets—including India and China—frequently do.

Time Zones
Although it may seem obvious, one must consider time zones. In order to accommodate planning sessions with B2B professionals during the day in New York, Paris, London, and Tokyo, clients will have to be available on the other end of the connection at odd hours in their home markets. We have had phone calls from angry clients waiting to watch a session that has not yet started, or worse, is already over, due to time zone differences.

Language Translation
Translation of study materials (for example, administrative paperwork, stimuli, and protocols) can take at least two business days. Testing all translated materials is key.

Several clients have requested a moderator fluent in English who can also serve as a translator—referred to as back-and-forth translation. What they often don’t realize is that this doubles the interview times, also increasing the cost of the study. The back-and-forth translation may also lead to frustrated clients, moderators, and participants. Unless the usability interviews are observational in nature, it is best to stick with simultaneous translation.

Having first-rate simultaneous translators on hand is critical. You are looking for translation, not interpretation. The minute a translator says, “He’s trying to say…” you know they’re interpreting, not translating. You want someone who can knit and translate at the same time. You may want two translators who do a tag-team approach; real-time translation can be exhausting.

If you want an explanation (and you should), ask for it after the fact when you’ve got time to grill the translators about what they really mean.

Beware the paralegal translator. We once had a translator in Italy refuse to allow us to record her as she translated, claiming that although the original words flowing from the respondent were ours to keep, the translation was her intellectual property and we needed to pay royalties if we wanted to record them.

One major part of translation is being tuned in to idiomatic language. Acronyms are a particular nuisance. In a recent study, we asked a Korean client for some materials to be sent to us ASAP. Because the acronym was not understood, it took us two extra days to get this project off the ground. A good translator knows idiomatic as well as literal language.

Project Management
Research around the globe should be relatively uniform in its implementation if one intends to get a clean reading on test effect and study reliability and validity. It is absolutely essential if you are going to combine the data into an international overview for management. Good research requires data of sufficient uniformity to be compared, one market and one wave to the next, and replicated for measures of reliability and validity. Getting comparable results is not easy.

Those who do international field work need to become experts in the differences from one culture to the next, not just in terms of general culture, but even in variations within one’s own discipline. A usability consultancy intent on conducting projects that yield results truly comparable across dispersed parts of the globe needs to have someone on staff who takes ownership of that expertise—or to find a reliable source to keep the logistics under control and the processes stable.UX

Michelle Borea is a vice president of Fieldwork Network International. In addition to managing day-to-day operations, she also works at developing Fieldwork’s international presence. Michelle has been with Fieldwork since 2003 and has more than fifteen years of industry experience. Michelle graduated from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia with a degree in Business Administration and Marketing. She is an active member of the Marketing Research Association (MRA) and Esomar.

Kellie May started with Fieldwork, Inc. in 2003 and has since moved from a project management position to vice president. Prior to joining Fieldwork, Kellie worked as a catering and sales manager. A graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Advertising, Kellie is an active member of the Marketing Research Association (MRA) and a member of the Fieldwork Advisory Committee.

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User Experience Magazine is by and about usability professionals, featuring significant and unique articles dealing with the broad field of usability and the user experience.
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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3, 2010.
http://www.usabilityprofessionals.org/upa_publications/past_issues/2010-3.html.

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