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Robert Schumacher of GfK’s User Experience Group interviewed about Global User Research

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This article is re-posted from User Centric’s website. Original interview with Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

Robert Schumacher, EVP of the User Experience group at GfK, was interviewed by the publisher of his book, Handbook of Global User Research, about user research and its challenges, benefits and tips for project success:

Starting with the basics, how is user research different from market research?

Robert Schmacher: By definition, ‘market research’ is geared to understand the needs of the market; ‘user research’ seeks to understand the needs, goals, and skills of individuals.  Further, ‘user experience’ describes how people interact with products or services regarding efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction.  The goal of user research is to both understand user needs and capabilities and also to design tools to satisfy those requirements. For example, in a global case, market research might tell us that seemingly disparate markets may have similar characteristics and needs, but user skill levels with respect to technology sophistication might vary widely.  Thus, market research and user research complement each other.

What impact does user research have on the end user?

RS: Organizations want to know that the products they are delivering are well tuned to the local market – that they are useful and usable, that they are localized so they look and feel familiar to the user.  If they feel ‘foreign,’ the likelihood of acceptance goes down.  Overall, this will negatively impact adoption and the perception of usability.  Conducting quality research authoritatively in each locale is very important for the success of the product or service.  Thus, one success factor in the market is that the user interaction with products and services needs to feel familiar and local.  Quality global user research helps ensure that success.

What are some challenges for organizations conducting global user research?

RS: Culture and language are the obvious challenges to incorporate into designs.  Many unintended artifacts are introduced in the user interface out of sheer ignorance of culture or language.  Even countries that share a common language (e.g., Brazil and Portugal) may have quite different views on the user interface because of local or regional technology influences and differences in adoption rates.

In the book Handbook of Global User Research, we set the framework and a foundation for conducting global user research.  We discuss planning and executing on global user research projects as well as explore emerging methods.  The book pulls from 50 contributors from over 20 countries, multiple languages and multiple points of view and experiences.  Understanding what the capabilities of users are locally, evaluating research methods that differ subtly or significantly across countries, and interacting with a variety of people to arrive at an understanding are all common challenges to overcome.  The book is an important first step and serves as an important marker in the development of global user research.

What makes a global user research project successful?

RS: Planning. We have to make sure the conditions for conducting the research are in place. Ultimately, with any large or complex research project, especially one that involves multiple cultures and languages, we have to make sure we are asking and answering the same research question no matter where we are, who’s involved, or what language we’re speaking.  We must be obsessive that we are well planned from a logistics standpoint as well.  I think that is what we are fundamentally trying to get at;  displaying confidence that all of these things are being considered in advance to avoid a misinterpretation along the way.  Knowing as well, that no matter how well we plan, things go askew – so having the forethought and the resources to adjust without compromising the research is vitally important.

Why has there been an increasing need for global user research?

RS: Traditionally, large globalized organizations are looking for new and lucrative markets.  But the Internet was an accelerant and influenced multinational trade in goods and services in ways never imagined previously.  As organizations and companies saw the ease with which their products and services can be promoted globally, the push was on.  The world became smaller and flatter, and more products moved across borders.  We, as user researchers, began to create research programs for our customers that have a single point of contact, uniformity of research methods, and ‘one throat to choke’ when going from country to country.  This was the spirit in which global alliances of user research firms were founded, like the UXalliance, an international network of user research firms.  The UXalliance is committed to having similar outstanding quality standards in research methods, customer service, reporting, capabilities, technologies and development of cutting edge services.

What kinds of organizations benefit from global user research?

RS: Just about any organization that creates a product or service that has to function in many different languages, cultures or user groups within those communities, benefits from global user research.  While it may be tempting for companies to take what is learned in one location and transfer it to others, this tactic is often a recipe for failure. We have recently seen an increase in research into medical devices globally; medical cultures, symbols, language, use of color, etc. varies significantly.  It is imperative to have a sound testing program in place in order to learn to make good decisions on how to make products or services more universal where possible or more local where needed.  Organizations that do not get that local knowledge may find their product or service flagging in the market, even though the market research says the product is needed.  Researchers in the locale ensure that the product’s central elements are intact.  There is a balance between pushing the same product across many borders and having vastly different versions of the same product in different countries.  Companies and organizations want to understand how well a certain product will play in various parts of the world.  It is our job to capture that question and ensure that the product or service will be able to meet the needs of the customer and ultimately be successful.

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