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Cultural barriers to conducting efficient User Research

The most enjoyable part of the Design Thinking Process for me personally is the User Research phase. I love working with people, mapping their emotional journeys and finding out what makes them tick! I want to step into their shoes and experience the joys and frustrations they experience when engaging with apps and other responsive designs.

Finding solutions that resolve users’ pain points and putting a smile on their faces is so rewarding. The only other time I’ve received such intrinsic job satisfaction is in the classroom when I was a teacher. However, traditional user research methods such as interviews and speaking to users face-to-face don’t always apply to a project. For instance, how do you conduct user research when you’re not even in the same country as your demographic?

I was faced with such a challenge on a project I worked on called InkTank. The brief was to create a web app to help people who want to get a tattoo, to find a design, find an artist in their area and set up an appointment with their chosen artist.

This was challenging because I was living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at the time and had to find ways to deal with the following barriers.

Tattoos are Haram

The first and greatest challenge was creating a service for a product that is forbidden in Saudi Arabia. During the time of the project and still to this day the kingdom is governed by strict Islamic Sharia Law, which considers getting a tattoo ‘haram’ or forbidden. So I mostly relied on the expat community, but since the demographic for tattoo users is quite wide and global I wanted to find a way to reach out to Saudi users. And I knew they existed because I’d seen even some of my students with tattoos. But it was all very hush hush, so I couldn’t openly approach the locals about this.

Restricted access to the Internet

Another challenge was IT and security issues. Due to the strict restrictions in Saudi Arabia, many sites at the time were monitored or could not be accessed. This posed a potential problem when running my testing with the clickable prototype on participants within the Kingdom. Luckily I had VPN installed on my devices and was able to easily overcome this obstacle.

Gender Segregation

The most awkward barrier was gender segregation. At that time Saudi law made sure that genders were always segregated. No kidding! Every Macdonalds or Starbucks had two cashier points, one for men and one for women. Similarly, food courts in shopping malls were divided into designated areas for single men or for women and children. There was no way I was going to be able to publicly approach Saudis with such a controversial topic.

How I overcame these barriers

Not wanting to risk anyone or myself I strictly relied on doing my user research on expats living in the Kingdom and on the online community. Thanks to our information age, I could gather data by a click of a button. I sent out surveys and A/B testing on social media and reached out to the online community. In the end I was able to get into my users’ shoes and get more personal data by interviewing users within the expat community and locals that befriended expats.

If you are given the opportunity to conduct user research in a foreign country, always be aware and educated about any cultural barriers that may exist. Be sensitive to the local laws and don’t pose any risks on yourself or your users. There is always a way to gather data, ethically and safely. Most of all enjoy the cultural experience and the people you meet along the way!


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