International research

Overcome challenges and drive success

By Pete Cape, Director, Global Knowledge, SSI

A lack of familiarity with target countries and cultures is one of the biggest challenges in international research, but by following a few simple guidelines, international projects do not need to be intimidating.

From the start, the researcher must place him or herself in a different mindset because the project will undoubtedly be different from a domestic one.

Here are some points to consider and best practices for your next international project:

  1. It is easy to believe that people in different countries and cultures will understand questions on a survey in the same way as they do “here”. Puzzling data from international studies is often caused by a different understanding about the meaning of the question across cultures. Cultures react to stimuli differently. This can be seen in myriad ways, including differences in use of scale points, attitudes about desirable and undesirable behavior, willingness to speak openly about certain topics and likelihood to give an “aspirational” answer rather than a factual one. This is not an easy subject with easy solutions. The best advice is to do a soft launch, allowing plenty of time to review the data, understand the cause of any differences and make adjustments.
  2. There are many free translation tools, such as Google Translate, but trusting a free tool or a non-native speaker to translate a questionnaire will result in differences that can change the meaning of your survey. Language is full of nuances that free tools and non-native speakers will miss. The best approach is to have the translation done by a professional agency, then have someone familiar with the language and culture review it. This avoids the common “movie/film” or “football/soccer” miscues. Respondents in English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada and UK can be especially sensitive to seeing US English in surveys. The same applies to the difference in Spanish between Spain, Mexico and Argentina.
  3. Researchers are sometimes tempted to avoid translation altogether and instead conduct a multi-country study in English. The rationale is that many people across the globe speak English, especially when the target population is business people, and the project can therefore avoid translation costs.

To understand the potential risk here, SSI tested the impact of fielding in native v. non-native language with a group of SSI panel members in China and Germany. In each country, we screened respondents asking if they spoke English, then gave questionnaires which were identical apart from some localization – in English to those who said they spoke it, in the native language to those who did not.

Results showed more consistency in answers when the native language was used (for example, when participants were shown a video clip and asked to recall the slogan from a list of choices.)

The study also uncovered potential hid- den biases to the sample when native speakers are excluded. For example, in the German sample, the education level of those who said they spoke English was much higher than those who did not.

Panelists are usually recruited in the native language of their country and a survey in English provides a confusing, difficult and unexpected experience, even for those who can speak the language. The additional effort required to answer the survey in English could lead to fatigue and a greater risk of satisficing.

  1. When conducting international research, it is best to work with a single point of contact at your client. Clients can be organized with layers of hierarchy throughout different offices. What you want to avoid is dealing with 20 people saying, “My business is different.” They probably are unique, but it is your client’s challenge to compromise internally, not yours.

Leverage your research company’s local on-the-ground knowledge. If chosen correctly, the company should know the local scene and will be able to provide insight on brand lists, appropriate fielding times, rewards, invitation wording and myriad other details.

Be prepared to be flexible with methodology. This seems counterintuitive for researchers who care so much about consistency of approach, but the insistence on using identical sampling and survey design can produce less comparable results than a custom mixed-mode approach. For example, a survey showing product packaging graphics or videos might work very well online in the US, but due to slow Internet connections, a door-to-door methodology might be a better and even more economical approach in rural China. Adhering to one overall message in the questionnaire, but adjusting the methodology for regional differences will yield the best results.

Think mobile. Design the questionnaire to be mobile-friendly right from the start. Many developing countries are rapidly moving from face-to-face methodology directly to mobile or smartphone, skipping over landline telephone, live cell phone, laptop and PC methodologies.

It is important to remember that there is no “normal” and no “expected” when conducting international research. Be open to other countries and cultures and learn everything you can about your target audience to help your next global research project run smoothly.

For the latest trends, expert guidance, fresh insights and research-on-research, visit SSI’s Knowledge Center.

SSI POV: The Importance of Interviewing in the Native Language POV series