Work — March 25, 2019

Cross-Cultural User Experience Design

Key considerations for researching your cross-cultural user experience.

by Lisa McGee

User Research UX Design

A person sitting at a table using a laptop computer

As UX designers, we’re often asked to become temporary domain experts in whatever field we’re working in, for any given scope of work. When you work at an agency, this domain expertise can shift dramatically between clients and projects. Over the last year, I’ve been tasked with gaining domain expertise not just in certain businesses and industries, but in other countries and cultures as well. Creating products for and doing research in another culture can be a bit intimidating. It feels like an extra-heavy kind of thing to get wrong.

Cultural domain expertise is not necessarily a prerequisite for doing the work. While we may not have the most developed cultural perspective on any given region, as UX designers in advanced tech markets, we often have a breadth of experience and expertise that those in smaller or less developed tech markets may not have. This expertise can be quite valuable as long as it’s applied with cultural sensitivity.

Upon being foisted into this cross-cultural conundrum, it occurred to me that, as UX researchers and designers, we often study culture somewhat unconsciously. Creating custom enterprise software solutions for a large Insurance company? If you’ve talked to their users, or done any contextual research, then you’ve studied their company culture. Contrast that with capital-c “Culture” and we think of the achievements of a particular group of people, whether in art, music, science, philosophy, etc.. What’s true of culture, in any scenario, is that it creates the context for our experiences. The prime directive of the UX designer should be to take on the perspectives of our end-users and create something for them. Culture is the context within which our end users experience our work. Without an understanding of the context we’re creating for, our work will fail.

So what do you do when the context you’re designing for is quite literally foreign to you? For me, and for us at C&A, the answer as always is do the research.

Considerations for International Research

There are a number of logistical factors that will impact whether or not you can conduct international research, not the least of which includes your budget and the nature of the problem you’re solving. Whether you’re working within a small budget, or you have the flexibility to create the ideal research event, here are a few things I’ve learned while scoping and conducting UX research internationally.

Language Barriers

To get a true read on how your solution may fare in another part of the world it’s best to conduct research in the user’s native tongue. If you don’t speak the language, translators, interpreters, and/or local research moderators will be necessary. Leave plenty of time in your schedule to work with translators. Especially when translating research stimulus, it’s critical to have it reviewed by a native speaker, not just a translator. When conducting qualitative or moderated research a local moderator can be the key to success by providing invaluable cultural context and analysis.

For the most part, completing research in the participants’ language is the best approach. However, there may be times when alternatives can be considered. More on that later.


Planning a research trip abroad can present challenges outside of your typical travel bookings. In the U.S., we can conduct a round of design, recruitment, research, and analysis in as little as three weeks. Once you go abroad, you’ll be dealing with another set of rules where processes may be more formal and communications may take longer.

One of the biggest logistical challenges can be finding and scheduling a good panel of research participants. It’s key to find a trusted partner who is positioned within the local market and willing to review the recruitment criteria and screener with you in detail. A good partner will be able to provide feedback on localizing your recruitment criteria to ensure it makes sense for their market. Additionally they should be able to assist with all communications between your team and participants including scheduling, follow up, and payment of incentives.

Cultural Differences

You’re likely to run into cultural differences from planning all the way through execution. Lean on clients and local subject matter experts to help review work along the way. Make sure you do some secondary research on cultural customs and communications prior to traveling. No need to be highly theoretical. Youtube can be a great source of information for practical knowledge on fitting in with the locals.

Selecting a Research Method

In order to scale your research efforts appropriately, it’s critical to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Once you’ve done that you can better understand how you’ll need to approach the research. Budget and timing can create very real constraints that you may need to work within. Translating assets, and hiring external vendors can be costly and time consuming. Depending on the type of question you need answered, you may find that less is more. For example, marketing messages and interface design can likely be handled at a distance with remote or even secondary research. According to Nielsen Norman Group, usability is generally the same across cultures. A simple usability test may not need extensive in-market research. However, if success depends upon users adopting a product into their everyday life, there’s no replacement for in-person contextual research.

International Research Case Studies

Now that we’ve reviewed some considerations, here are a couple of examples of how this has played out on our own international projects.

Primary Research In-Market

Do this when: You’re developing a new product or service and success is dependent upon user adoption.

If possible, immerse yourself in the culture you’re designing for. Primary research in the market where your product will launch will yield the most thorough and valid results.

We recently tested a new app for a large Insurance company getting into the insurtech space. They had launched a proof of concept stateside with great results. However, with the ultimate goal of launching in Japan, they wanted to ensure the product resonated there as well. After completing over 1000 hours of research with a Japanese moderator (and an interpreter for our English-speaking team), we learned that while the core concept was a success, much of the functionality and messaging would need to be tailored to specifically suit a Japanese audience. For this app to be successful, users must engage with it regularly. The context of use is highly personal and integrated within their lifestyle. Thus cultural factors play a heavy role in the context of use. A first-person perspective and cultural immersion allowed our team to deeply understand how this product should distinctly fit into a Japanese lifestyle.

Primary Research Remote Style

Do this when: You have specific research questions to answer or you’re validating well-developed concepts.

While full cultural immersion is ideal it’s not always practical or necessary. It’s 2019. You can travel space-time and virtually visit living rooms across the globe from the comfort of your home office. With online video conferencing advancing all the time and the ability to recruit participants globally you can get good-enough answers to certain kinds of problems for much less effort than a two week research trip.

Last year we were tasked with helping a global e-commerce client craft an online experience to launch a complex new line of products. Globally, the functionality of this new product line varied by region, with some core features unavailable at the time of launch. We needed to understand how the messaging and content should vary to avoid international customer confusion.

Most of these regions were not primarily English-speaking. However, we identified several where a significant portion were fluent. This made it possible for us to test messaging in English without causing strain on research participants. It’s true that this approach, technically, had limited validity from a methodological perspective. However it allowed us to get good-enough answers so that our client could confidently launch their product. What we researched didn’t need to be used daily or integrated into the life of the consumer. The page we designed just needed to be adjusted for regional awareness and familiarity with the product for sale. Traveling to all of these countries to get answers would have been overkill. In this instance, we were able to scale quickly and conduct lean research to get to good-enough solutions to a temporary problem while also considering the specific context of the solution.


International research clearly presents it’s own set of challenges. Most of what you need to overcome these challenges, you may already be armed with in your own UX organization. Working on international projects has given our team the opportunity to gain a more global perspective from partners, clients and users around the world. This exchange of expertise and cross pollination of ideas is one of my favorite things about working as a UX designer. Learning new information in order to solve problems tailored to highly specific contexts is what we do best. As we move toward a more global society, we should embrace the opportunity to share ideas and experiences.

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