"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"Something that probably isn't here," she responded, somewhat despondently. When she reached the end, she leaned back, visibly disappointed. "I figured," she said, "They never have stickers for this."
Not understanding, the translator prompted, "Stickers for Eid, she means." Of course, I thought. It was August in Saudi Arabia, and we were fast approaching one of the largest holidays in the region, Eid al-Adha.
"But see," she said, "[this other app] has lots of stickers for Eid." She showed me her phone and, sure enough, a variety of stickers and captions appeared. "This is why I use this app," she said, "because it's meant for people like me."
I sat back in my chair and digested this information, wondering what it must mean to have a company consider your perspective, to understand what matters to you, but not just you, also your friends, family, colleagues, neighbors. It elicits an emotional connection to the product. And, as those of us in product design know, it's the emotional connection that makes a product stick.
I begin this piece on how to do global research with this particular story from the field to introduce the idea of a "global product mindset"—what it means to build products that are responsive, and to consider how people around the world use your product. Gone are the days when products and product thinkers could conform their ideas and UI based on how a (narrow) subset of users from Silicon Valley might use them. This might work when you're a startup, but once you've graduated to having a significant portion of users outside of the US, you need your product leaders to spend time in the field with their customers in other countries. Central to Dropbox Design is helping to connect the dots for people who use our products and services, and helping to inculcate global product thinking is a way we help our Design team do that.
A brief history of global product thinking
Building a global mindset in product thinking is not a new idea. In fact, there’s a body of scholarship that’s been analyzing globalization for at least two decades. In their longitudinal analysis of over 1,000 senior executives across 40 nations, the Economic Intelligence Unit (EUI) identified the lack of global mindfulness of employees as one of the most significant challenges facing companies in the 21st century.
According to several scholars, a global mindset is one that “recognizes, and strikes a balance between global integration and local responsiveness” (pg. 14, Ng, Tang, Ang, 2011). This is contrasted from a “parochial” mindset that emphasizes uniformity across cultures and markets; and a “diffused” mindset that favors market segmentation and differentiation without a global picture (Begley & Boyd, 2003; Javidan et al. 2007). While we strive to hire people from more diverse and international backgrounds, the majority of our workforce still hails from the US. And so, in order to bring a global product perspective, we need to create the organizational infrastructure to build this from within.
Building global mindfulness requires two significant shifts internally for a company, and they’re ones we’re actively pursuing here:
- Creating organizational values that embrace a "global mindset"
- Creating organizational routines that promote and accelerate this global mindset in the organization (Begley and Boyd 2003; Ng, Tang, Ang 2011)
I believe it’s up to leadership to espouse those values that embrace global thinking, including building empathy and embracing diversity of thought. The values enhanced at Dropbox help our teams to pursue an intentionality of craft: the ability to create products and features that incorporate contextual awareness of how people use our product around the world. Yet our values need to be grounded in concrete awareness of how people thrive and connect in contexts that aren’t like the ones we on the design team exist in every day. This awareness is a learned behavior, one that must be built from the ground up, by creating a cadence of taking teams into the field. Creating organizational routines, however, requires intention—and certainly investment—from the CEO on down.
While there are many ways to create organizational routines, I’m going to detail the global fieldwork planning process that we’ve created for Dropbox, synthesized from learnings from fieldwork and production work I’ve conducted over the last eight years in over 35 countries with dozens of product teams, vendors, and (at a rough estimate) over a thousand participants. It also includes contributions from many past researchers, and quite a few design and research program managers. This is by no means the definitive guide (I still have so much to learn), but I hope you'll find it helpful if and when you decide to embark into the global research terrain.
When to go into the field?
I thought I'd start with the question I get asked most often: how do you decide when to go into the field? Well, there’s no hard and fast rule, but in general there are a few good criteria I like to use:
- Your product roadmap dictates a need to understand a target market
- There’s a significant change in data that you're tracking that is unexplainable, or a long-term trend with your product that you want to better understand
- You need exploratory research before you can build product solutions for another market
- You want to do some usability testing that will help guide the product process
- Your team is testing a certain feature in a set of markets and wants to get signal on how it will be received before they think about scaling more broadly
Where to go?
Once you've decided your product team needs to do international research, how do you decide where to go? This can be a tough decision, as often there is no one right country to travel to, but I like to begin narrowing the field by:
- Countries your team and company care about, either by size, revenue, or behavioral trends
- Countries that can serve as proxies for other markets your company cares about
- Countries that are different from those where other teams have previously done research in order to look for fresh insights or contrasts
- Countries where the team can make an immediate product change and can act on the findings quickly
Also remember to stay attentive to public holidays in countries you’re visiting. For example, it would be difficult to coordinate fieldwork in Brazil during Carnival.
At this stage, you'll likely have two to three countries to choose from, so you'll want to bring in some key partners. I usually work with data scientists, product analysts, and growth marketers (or all three) to understand the particular countries I'm considering and then develop a few key hypotheses I feel we should test in fieldwork. I'll also identify key stakeholders and decision-makers who will be involved with the field research and then have a few working sessions with them to talk through the questions to answer or problems to solve for.
Bringing in your core team to your planning early is key, as often there are large gaps between planning the fieldwork and going into the field. Ensuring that your partners are working with you as you decide on where and how to plan will not only help during fieldwork, but will ensure you’ll have people to evangelize for the work you've done when you return.
After a few sessions with the team, I’m usually ready to write a detailed research brief to agree on goals, and also to articulate the hypothesis or hypotheses that we want to test in the field. I like to include background information on how we decided on the country to travel to, including any data points gathered from my analysts. I then outline a working hypothesis statement that we want to validate or invalidate, methods proposed, recruiting criteria, and key questions to answer. Finally, I agree on a timeline with my stakeholders to ensure they’ll get the insights in time for their planning.
Who to bring?
I believe successful trips are ones that have the right balance of cross-functional partners to researchers, and as a general guide, I like to sick to the 5:1 rule—five cross-functional partners to one researcher. You might be able to accommodate more or have to take fewer people depending on where you're traveling to or what methods you’re using. Planning in-home interviews in Tokyo, for example? Well, you might not have room to take five people and yourself, plus a moderator and translator. Your vendor will be able to provide good guidance here, so lean on them for support.
It’s up to you and your key stakeholders to decide who from the product team is best to join, but try to consider:
- Balance of Design, Product Management, Engineering, Analytics
- People who haven’t gone into the field previously
- Cost of certain team members being in the field (for example, if someone is immersed in a big project, it’s probably not ideal to take them away)
- Whether that team member will help drive impact post-fieldwork
I also like to set very clear expectations with my cross-functional partners about what it means to be part of fieldwork. Remember that not everyone has participated in fieldwork, and they might have no idea what to expect (or what you expect of them). Further still, there might be cultural nuances or things to be mindful of when meeting with people in other parts of the world—people might be more formal or less formal, for example.
While you want your team to experience the country, including social and cultural outings, it's also a huge investment for the company to have their employees go into the field. Not showing up in the morning due to a hangover from the night before... probably not so cool. Here are a few simple fieldwork rules I review with my team, to set expectations beforehand:
- Be on time. If we’re expected to leave for interviews at 9 am, don't make me hunt for you.
- Be present. Our customers (or potential customers) are giving us a great gift—their time—so be attentive and focused during interviews.
- Follow up. Fieldwork doesn't end when the trip is finished. You’ll be expected to help socialize and follow up on any important work when we return.
I also ask my team to help me prepare for the fieldwork by attending planning meetings and commenting on any research briefs, moderation and recruitment guides.
How to plan?
Once your team is aligned, you're ready to put out the bid to vendors. Often vendor recommendations will come through your Research Ops department, but if you don’t have one, or the company hasn't traveled to a specific country before, ask your trusted design and product research community. I like to put the word out to current and former colleagues if I'm in need of advice. Also, feel free to reach out to me directly.
Working to solidify a statement-of-work with a vendor would require its own special article, but suffice it to say: make sure you provide as much detail as possible about what you and your team require and what your deliverables are (for example, transcripts, video, audio) to get an accurate bid.
While you or your research operations department are negotiating with vendors, you might want to schedule that project kick-off meeting with your team and walk through the planning process. Now is also a good time remind people to check their own visa needs to ensure they’re able to travel in the timeframe you’ve given. I also like to create a group (on Slack or Workplace, for example) for the traveling team because it provides an easy way to share information, as well as creating a group folder that includes logistic and planning docs, research briefs, and moderation guides.
As for accommodations, while there are no set guidelines, consider the size of your team and whether staying in the same hotel would be easier. I like to have everyone stay in the same hotel, as it makes it easier to manage travel between interview locations. Other things to consider when deciding on hotels:
- Large cities where traveling between hotels can be onerous
- Cities where safety can be an issue and it’s better to keep everyone together
The vendor relationship
One of your most important roles as the lead researcher for international fieldwork is working with your international vendor. Making sure you and your vendor (and their team) are all on the same page will save you a lot of heartache when you're in the field. A general timeframe and plan I like to follow is as follows.
4–6 weeks before travel
After you've chosen a vendor, set up an initial meeting to review the research brief, recruiting, and your expectations of what will happen in the field. I usually start by going over:
- The research brief and goals in detail
- Timelines for recruiting lists and screeners
- Your company's nondisclosure agreement (NDA) requirements
- Process for self-recruiting (if applicable)
- Delivery of moderation guides and translation design materials
2–3 weeks before travel
Ask the vendor to set up calls with your moderators to review the guides and key objectives for the trip. I like to ensure that I give myself ample time on these calls to review everything in detail, and to answer any questions your moderator might have. This is also a great time for the moderators to offer any advice on your guides, particularly on any material that might be sensitive or culturally inappropriate, or other suggestions on how to answer key questions. A good moderator will be able to help you get the most out of your research, so listen to them!
1 week before travel
Ask for a recruitment update from the vendor. You'll want to ensure the vendor is on track with recruiting for your trip.
1–2 days before travel
If applicable and depending on the level of design testing, you might want to meet with your moderators the day before fieldwork begins to review the designs or prototypes and research materials.
Remember: making the research as successful as possible involves working closely with the vendor. Sometimes arriving a couple days before the team helps you give your vendor full attention to make sure they have the resources and training they need to succeed.
Some other good questions to ask your vendor before the team arrives:
- Check that they’ll provide water and light snacks, especially if you’re traveling long distances
- Get the number for the project manager in the field, and don't be afraid to use it
Did you make it this far? Give yourself a big high five.
Being successful in the field will require a lot of coordination, but remember that you’re not the only adult in the room, so you can spread the responsibility for coordination, planning dinners, and other tasks among your team. Another reason to set up that Slack/Workplace/WhatsApp group is to send these updates around for morning or evening plans. I also like to remind people of departure times the night before, as sometimes they shift. That said, if I'm traveling with a large group, I like to ask my vendor or the hotel to pre-book some dinners. After a long day, the last thing you want to do is hunt for a restaurant that can accommodate 15 people at 8pm.
Leaving the hotel for a day in the field? Always good to double-check if you have:
- Extra chargers
- Adaptor plugs
- Sleds (if needed)
- Prototype phones (if needed)
- Something to take notes with (that doesn't require Wi-Fi)
Roles in the field
I also like to pre-assign tasks for people on a given research day and ensure that I have at least one designated note-taker. Other roles could include posting or sending key insights to the teams back at home, or my new favorite, having vloggers for the day (I’m always so surprised how creative my colleagues are). Giving people jobs is not only a good way to engage the team, but also helps ensure that you’re spreading responsibility around and not trying to do it all yourself (you will quickly burn yourself out, believe me).
Another important job for researchers in the field is to oversee or facilitate debriefs. While it's up to you how you want to handle debriefs in the field, I would say at minimum, make sure you have at least a daily debrief with the team. I like to keep the end-of-day debriefs small (no more than 15–20 minutes) and do a big 4–6 hour debrief at the end on a separate day, but that's my own preference because I’m usually zonked at the end of a long day.
Small debriefs between research sessions will also help you understand how your team is getting the data they need. Remember that your moderation guide is just that: a guide. If you’re not getting the information required to answer your key questions, don't be afraid to work with the moderator to adjust the sessions. Far worse to come back from the field without getting enough signal on your questions than to make changes while you're there.
While most international fieldwork can be really rewarding for all involved, and socializing and bonding is all part of that, remember that your days can be long, so pacing yourself and your team will reap rewards. It's also probably a good idea to make sure the team has reviewed any travel or expense policies before departing, so everyone knows how to spend within their means. I once had a partner try to submit an expense for a $500 dinner claiming ignorance on our company's travel and expense policy. His boss, understandably, was not too pleased.
Have you finished? Give yourself a big pat on the back. Rested? Now, time to get to work!
I actually think the hardest part of my job leading international fieldwork happens when I return home from the field. You will likely have a lot of data and, depending on translation turnaround, will need to spend some time synthesizing and reviewing your findings. There are countless articles on how to write a good research report, so I won't bore you with any tips here, except to say that I like to include lots of photos and video clips (if available) to give my teams context on where we were and who we spoke to. You'll also want to spend some time syncing with your cross-functional partners to align your audience, and will likely need to create multiple versions of your report or presentation for different audiences.
Part of the reason I think the hardest part of my job is when I return from the field is because how you socialize your findings is just as important as the findings themselves. I often spend months when I return presenting at one-off team meetings, pillar monthly or bi-weekly meetings, PM or Design–specific meetings, or hosting large lunch-n-learns. Most recently, I've gotten into the idea of setting up a design installation somewhere in the building—I'll let you know how it goes. Importantly, a research report that’s never read, or findings that don't land on any teams' roadmaps, aren't worth much and certainly don't help establish a global product mindset for your team. And establishing global product thinking, as mentioned in the beginning, is one of the main reasons we invest in international fieldwork.
As I write this, I’m sitting at a cafe in Beijing during lunchtime, watching people come and go, ordering food, drinking tea. A young mother and her daughter sit next to me, and I happen to notice that the child is drinking from an Oxo sippy-cup. I smile to myself and think of some product researcher before me interviewing parents in China, validating that keeping your children from spilling all over themselves is in fact a universal product need!