Advancing the Value of Ethnography

10 Strategies to Have Impact with International Research


70% of Google traffic today comes from outside of the US, and that number will only get bigger. The next billion users to come online are going to be from markets other than North America and Europe. Our role as researchers is to help product teams understand user needs in different markets, and more importantly, how to design great products to meet these needs and behaviors.

We’ve learned a lot from the research we’ve done so far and thought we’d share some of the strategies that worked well for us in finding useful insights for our teams. We’re looking forward to hearing more about other researchers’ methods at EPIC2015 in São Paulo.

1. Create a buzz

Our research tries to bring people together from across the company to solve problems—but people have to know about our research plans in order to join in. To spread the word, we work with product teams to identify areas of exploration and we put together research proposals. Packed with data from previous research and analysis, our aim is to make these presentations go viral. We use video and imagery to demonstrate opportunities to improve our products, and partner with stakeholders to spread the word. Our goal is to initiate collaborations between product teams and encourage participation in field research.

2. Dig deep

If a team requests field research, we compile desk research before investing in recruitment and travel. This helps to refine research questions, build hypotheses, and maintain engagement with product teams during the planning stage. Our desk research might include logs analysis, online products reviews, heuristic evaluation, synthesis of internal and external research, etc. We also try to reach out to colleagues who work in offices we are focusing on for preliminary research to help scope projects, such as lightweight surveys or intercept interviews.

3. Everyone’s a researcher

When we travel for field research, we take mixed teams of engineers, project managers, designers, and marketing. However, as soon as we hit the ground, these roles disappear—everyone becomes a researcher. Not only has this been helpful for logistics (an extra set of hands to help us with note-taking, photography, and video capturing), it also means that the team takes ownership of the research, from interviews to analysis and reporting. We train all attendees and provide structured analysis and recording tools. For instance, for a recent project in Brazil, we designed a notebook with tasks and questions to capture everything from interview notes to snippets from their train ride. We had planned to use these only for analysis, but some members of the team wanted to keep them on their desk as a reminder of what they learned on the trip.

4. Intercept interviews

Every second of field research is an opportunity to meet new people, absorb new experiences, and conduct research beyond recruited participants. A great addition to our research toolkit has been intercept interviews. By conducting short, conversational interviews in the streets or shopping malls we are able to expand the type and number of people we talk to. This is great for widening the type and number of people we talk to on a research trip. It also helps us to test hypotheses and expand the scope of our research.

5. Live like a local

It can be easy to go to the latest trendy restaurant or always take a taxi to get around, but following our own normal routine means that we miss out on learning about how the locals live their lives. When we take teams to other countries, we try to include immersion activities to build empathy and connect with local users. For example, we encourage Googlers to use homestay accommodation to help understand how a family lives day to day. We also build structured immersion activities into our itineraries. We gamify these activities, splitting the team into groups and see who can ride the most buses, eat lunch on the average country budget, or buy a typical thing in a local market.

6. Test in the wild

Another useful thing is to put away our own phones and try local devices and products instead. As an immersion activity, we typically encourage people to buy a local smartphone and SIM card (which can be an experience in itself). We explore how locals solve these problems using other apps and workarounds, and replicate this on similar devices and infrastructure. In addition, using our apps in the wild gives the team a sense of urgency to fix issues.

Top tip: Since it can be incredibly hard to buy SIM cards once you’re in some countries, try to research SIM cards in advance. You may even want to buy some at the airport.

7. Stay connected

Sometimes, when we’re lucky, there’s much more interest in field research trips than we expect. If we can’t take everyone, we help stakeholders in the home office stay engaged by sending “postcards from the field.” This can take the form of an email with a summary of what we’ve learned for the day. However, we’ve had more success with more visual snippets like photos with short one-line insights or videos shot in-situ. These make the people who couldn’t make it to the research feel a part of the team and excited about hearing more.

8. Debriefs in the field

We prioritize analysis in the field to make the most of the expertise of each attendee and establish consensus on key themes and next steps. We often have people from different teams or locations joining us for research, so it’s essential for us to use time while still in the field to discuss product implications. The best part of running debrief workshops with the whole team is that stakeholders feel ownership over the insights and implications and are more invested in the next steps.

Top tip: reserve a dedicated space for the debrief in advance. Don’t rely on being able to find a last-minute meeting room at the hotel, as this can often be more expensive that you anticipated.

9. Share widely

If teams are invested in research and analysis, they are more likely to promote the findings and advocate for next steps. As soon as we’re back in the office, we meet with product teams right away, sharing anecdotes and advocating for the insights. We have found it helpful to co-present research reports with stakeholders, so they can add to their stories from the field to bring them to life. In addition, we often add the product team’s action items to the research reports to illustrate how the insights are informing the roadmap. The shared ownership of research insights, reports, and next steps helps us to amplify the message that we have a team of people across the company spreading insights from the field and driving change.

10. Keep the focus

It’s important not to let that buzz fizzle. After all the insights have been documented in engaging reports and shared with stakeholders, we want to make them accessible and enticing to a broader audience. We’ve experimented with different formats: posters, videos, postcards, and even an expo where we pitched tents in the office to tell our stories. One of the most effective ways we translate insights into actionable next steps is running design sprints following research. Consolidating our insights into actual designs helps product teams and senior stakeholders understand how we might solve these problems. We can evaluate how effective these solutions might be and continue to build a case for change by conducting remote testing.

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 3.06.11 PMScreen Shot 2015-10-01 at 3.05.56 PMScreen Shot 2015-10-01 at 3.05.46 PM Alessandra Millar, Jeannie Foulsham & Laura Garcia-Barrio are user researchers at Google focusing on international research.




Alessandra Millar, User Researcher, Google

Jeannie Foulsham, User Researcher, Google

Laura Garcia-Barrio, User Researcher, Google