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How well you understand a new market can make all the difference in making a successful venture there. Understanding cultural context is key to designing products, crafting the right market strategy and overcoming business challenges. But how does a global organisation gain an understanding of an unfamiliar market? It’s a tough question to answer.
Many a global venture has been scuppered by a failure to really ‘get’ the mindset of a new cultural audience. Massive global organisations are increasingly under pressure to really connect and empathise with the people and cultures they transact with. But it’s hard for global organisations to build the local relationships and acquire local language speakers to gain the insights they need.
One solution to this dilemma of globalisation is found in user field research. There are many ways to approach market research, perhaps the most pioneering of which is the ‘black ops’ style total immersion method. It’s a radical approach to finding out about different cultural audiences and perhaps the most demanding one for the research teams themselves.
The most visible proponent of immersive user research is Jan Chipchase, author of books including The Field Study Handbook and Hidden in Plain Sight. As a leading research designer at Nokia and Frog Design, he focused on looking into the role of technology in society. Typical research projects included looking at how faith influences transactions in India.
The projects he now undertakes for his own consultancy tend to be at the challenging end of the research spectrum, particularly the immersive research ventures lasting many weeks. During these intensive field excursions, a combined team of researchers and decision makers will live in the market they are targeting.
They’ll undertake homestays for maximum exposure to the people they are trying to connect with and partake in a variety of research and information gathering activities. This type of research is often called social immersion because the researchers are so embedded into the society they are trying to gain an understanding of.
As an organisation delivering technology to a global audience, Google finds immersive field research an invaluable tool. Employees across a wide range of disciplines, from engineers to senior decision makers, are expected to participate in immersive trips with product teams. Google claims this helps them create “meaningful” products.
Immersive field research like this isn’t just about testing theories and prototypes in standalone research sessions. It’s also about gaining a wider cultural understanding that’s much broader in scope. These insights can help inform product design, strategy and communications.
One advantage of this type of research is that it can significantly boost organisational wisdom. By engaging people outside the immediate research team and bringing in the client rather than just offering an outsourced research solution, cultural understanding can be transmitted across the organisation.
With participants having little choice but to engage with local people, there’s even opportunity to boost their language skills.
Immersive field studies are not cheap or easy projects for organisations to undertake. They can, however, be the foundation of real innovation between cultures.
When companies are trying to spark a global conversation and drive things forward in their particular sector, field research can act as the catalyst for change and the inspiration for innovation. The advantage of immersive approaches is that they tend to be broad in scope and open-minded in their research goals.
Immersive research projects have a broader remit than merely testing an existing product or service. They can support your organisation to identify patterns in human behaviour that are relevant to the work you do. More specifically, they can support you as you turn existing insights and capabilities into ideas for new products and services that will be locally culturally relevant.
Planning field research
Field research is not something to be undertaken lightly. There are huge costs and challenges associated with getting an effective research experience. For starters, you’ll need to find the right local partners who understand and can deliver what you are trying to achieve. That’s a major exercise in its own right.
It’s hard to find the right location and craft effective sessions that give your team the right cultural exposure. You’ll almost definitely need to get the right language support in place to achieve even the basic preparation for your project.
Although it’s a massive undertaking, committing to this type of research is an excellent way to assert your sense of purpose. If your organisation has global ambitions, it needs to make a long-term commitment to understanding the new audiences it seeks to engage.
Many companies with global ambitions fail to venture outside their familiar Western or developed world environment to truly understand audiences in emerging markets. Immersive field studies are just one way to kickstart a new level of cultural understanding that’s the essential step to becoming a global organisation.