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Day Seven: How I got kicked out of China

International user research is about 60%- the coolest thing you have experienced in your whole life and about 40%- how in the hell am I going to survive this?

I recently traveled to China to do field concept validation. This trip was incredibly intense. We were testing a lot of different concepts with 3 different user groups, so there was a whole lot of stimuli to juggle. On top of that we were trying to keep the stimuli as iconic as possible to overcome any literacy and dialect issues.

Here are some examples of the tools we created to do concept validation:

And here is the “gear” we packed:


The plan was to interview shop keepers in their shops and home owners in their homes. We had done generative research and shop-alongs in a different city a few months earlier and didn’t have any problems, so we were expecting smooth sailing with this trip. We had decided to add on a number of cultural exploration activities to this trip to improve our understanding of the Chinese consumer and shop owner. This trip seemed like it was going to be the best trip ever, until we got to China.

We spent so much time before the trip making sure that every detail of every scenario was culturally appropriate and super straight forward. However, we managed to overlook a major factor in our new geography: the importance of building trust. We arrived to Jai Xing, and got prepped to do our 15 days of field work.



On our first day in the field we traveled an hour to the city we would be working and split into two teams. Each team set up in a different shop with video equipment and stimuli and proceeded to interview the shop owners.  When we were in Shantou earlier in the year all of the shops we shadowed were at least 45 minutes away from each other, because for being a “small town” in China, Shantou was still huge. Now we were in a small village, and didn’t even realize that the two shops we were working with were only a few blocks from each other.

So as we conducted the interviews each shop drew a crowd. People in the town gathered around to watch the interviews, and probably make fun of the Americans with a crazy amount of video equipment. Everything was going great until a man came up and started talking to our participant in a local dialect that our moderator didn’t understand. (You haven’t lived as a researcher until you have dealt with three way translation). Our shop owner flipped out and demanded that we stop the interview.

We could not figure out what was going on, so we paid the participant, packed up and headed back to the van. Before we had gotten back to our hotel we had received word that every shop owner in town had decided not to participate in our study.

So what happened?

When you do user research it is typical to screen participants for eloquence. You include a number of open ended questions in the screener that make sure that the participant is creative, open minded, and able to openly talk about how they feel. This screening helps to insure that you have participant who are capable of offering candid feedback. On that first day in the field the second shop owner, who passed the screening, completely freaked out about all of the attention he was getting. The second team decided to cut the interview short and paid the shop owner the full incentive (this is a typical practice in the industry). Most of the time participants are happy to get paid and it isn’t an issue.

What we didn’t even realize when we entered the field in China was that all of our participants who were technically business competitors were also all friends of family. So when the one shop owner was paid the full amount for less than half a session, he walked to the second shop owner’s store and told her that we were taking advantage of her. Word spread like wildfire, and within an hour our whole recruit had fallen apart.

Luckily I had the most amazing regional team in the world and David and his amazing team at Strategic Focus Research were able to re-recruit almost overnight. We were flexible on the ground and decided to move the actual interviews into a makeshift research facility that we created out of 2 hotel conference rooms and a whole lot of a/v equipment, and we visited shops casually to understand the context.

That trip was an amazing learning experience and by the time we left our group was actually featured on the front page of the local paper. If I remember correctly the headline was something to the effect of: Crazy Americans Visit JaXing and Dance with Locals…or something like that.

So while I didn’t actually get kicked out of China, we sort of got kicked out of a village but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. If I wouldn’t have gone to China I would have missed out on this:


I wouldn’t have met her:

Or seen any of the stuff here

I have been so lucky to get the chance to travel…it has been truly life changing…even if I did almost get kicked out of China.

Do you have a crazy international research story? What did you learn?

Reader Comments (1)

I am chinese. Welcome to china again.

December 11, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlxs

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