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The challenges (& opportunities) of working with an international user base

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I worked as the lead user researcher on our recent discovery work for Wellcome Connecting Science. One of the complexities of this piece of work was its international scope. This presented both unique challenges and opportunities.

I encountered one of the first challenges early on in the research process. Whilst I was booking users in for interviews I quickly realised that many of the users I was emailing lived in different time zones. This added an additional layer of complexity to the challenge of finding a suitable date and time to book users in for research activities. 

This challenge was lessened by my use of a world clock website which allows you to input a number of different global locations and compare the time in each.  This – thankfully – meant that I didn’t need to rely on counting forwards or backwards a certain amount of hours when trying to find an appropriate interview time for international users! 

Differences in participants’ grasp of spoken English represented another challenge. Whilst all users had been screened using an online recruitment survey – and thus all demonstrated a good understanding of written English – it was clear that there sometimes exist differences in proficiency between written versus spoken language.  

These challenging interviews required me to think about different ways I could word questions, focusing on the importance of using plain English to get to the core of what I was trying to ask. Luckily this was a challenge with only a couple of the users I interviewed.

The final challenge I faced as a result of working internationally on the project was users’ highly unstable internet connection in some parts of the world. This was especially difficult in the user needs workshop I facilitated. Local network issues meant that the number of users on the call varied between two, three and four at various different points due to them either struggling to connect to the internet or their network going down temporarily. Needless to say this did not make it easy to introduce different activities and ensure everyone knew what the current task was across the ninety minute session.

However I do not want to give a false impression of the international dimension of this piece of research. None of the challenges I’ve described were insurmountable. They just added an extra layer of complexity to the research. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to engage with and learn from users from a number of different continents. It enabled us to compare and contrast international experiences and perspectives. This, ultimately, enabled us to present more nuanced findings.

Looking ahead to future research, my experiences on this project have highlighted some of the difficulties which user researchers can be faced with when working internationally. On a personal level, reflecting on what I’ve learnt and discussing this with other members of the team will be helpful in ensuring that future work with an international dimension can run smoothly and effectively.


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