Consultants traveling thousands of miles for business have something in common with the tourists sharing their airplane cabins. While we’re hardly ever in a foreign country long enough to make reading a guidebook worthwhile, we might skim one for tips on adapting to an unfamiliar place — Will all the schnitzel be veal? What’s the etiquette of café culture? Is there really no speed limit on the Autobahn?
On top of doing our jobs well, there’s an undertone of anxiety about navigating a different language and customs. That unknowingness can be valuable, because it’s often exactly what our client is feeling.
Creating a Guide To U.S. Users
As product developers when we travel we’re often on a mission to help a company adapt or make their product more appealing to the U.S. market. Part of our job is to provide for our clients a “guidebook” to U.S. users, whose unmet needs are both unique and foreign. We’ve found that videoed user research is often the best way to build trust and give our client firsthand experience of current issues.
Before leaving for a recent trip to Europe, we designed and built a hardware mockup with integrated user interface simulation that could be flat-packed and shipped to specific user testing locations around the U.S. We effectively took the mockup and our head of research on a research roadshow. (The shipping crate is a little worse for the wear, but the prototype stood up well considering it was shipped, constructed, and disassembled six times.)
At each test site, we observed specific use case scenarios, asked questions, and took videos of the user research. We ended up with many hours of video and some actionable conclusions about how our EU client could optimize their product in order to appeal to customers on this side of the pond.
Making the Alien Understandable
Without that U.S.-based research, we would have been on poor footing with our client who — just as we haven’t built up a tolerance for schnitzel and strudel — doesn’t necessarily understand where potential customers in North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey are coming from. Why would they? It’s not where they’re from.
In the end, our client didn’t need to watch our hours and hours of videotape. Showing a few select, edited clips earned trust in our rigorous research approach and made the alien understandable as a commercial necessity. It helped give our client insights into the setups and into the criteria used by the lead product decision-makers in the U.S. They may not have agreed with those decision makers in principle but now they understood the context of their user requests. In the end it helped them buy into our recommended workflow solution.
Consultants, Road Warriors, Tour Guides
So, what are the lessons here? As consultants, we need to be empathetic to the concerns of clients whose worlds we dip into, especially when those worlds are thousands of miles and a few time zones away. Just as we might check a guidebook to help acclimate ourselves to their native cuisine and driving customs, we need to take the lead in acclimating them to U.S. users.
It’s our job to help them understand the cultural differences they’re seeking to penetrate and to make that process quick and painless. The more rigorous upfront work we can do before we board the plane, the better it goes.
Oh, and also? Pack your earplugs, your eye mask, and your Nyquil for that red eye. (You’re welcome.)