I recently had the chance to conduct ethnographic research and contextual inquiry research in China. I was extremely excited about this new opportunity. Our plan included multiple cities in two weeks, which meant we had a great deal of preparatory work to accomplish before we could travel halfway around the world. Below is a list of the top five lessons I learned while doing research abroad.

LESSON 1: Don’t try to do it all: Team up with a local research company AND get a simultaneous interpreter.

ethnographic-research-abroad-global-researchOur goal in China was to interview and observe a specific worker demographic. Since none of my team members spoke Mandarin or Cantonese, we decided that it would be best to team up with a Chinese research consultancy. Not only did they help split up the work, they also spoke the language and had a firm understanding of the local customs.

We also teamed up with a simultaneous interpreter. Although this was an added cost to the project, their services were invaluable. With the simultaneous interpreter, we were able to get an immediate understanding of what the interviewee was saying, which then allowed us to ask relevant follow-up questions. Without the help of the interpreter we would have been forced to wait until the end of the interview in order to thoroughly understand what the interviewee said.

LESSON 2: Get creative with recruiting.

ethnographic-research-abroad-global-researchBefore we left for China, we engaged a local recruiting agency to help set up the 12 anticipated interviews. This helped our team to obtain a couple of leads, but we experienced difficulty recruiting such a specific type of worker we needed for our global research.

When we landed in China, only a few of the 12 interviews were lined up. We understood that we needed to get creative. After the completion of the first interview, our team asked the interviewee if they had friends who might want to participate. Through WeChat (China’s version of Skype), we began networking with a wide variety of workers interested in participating in our research study.

Another recruitment method we utilized was to advertise the study at the local ferry terminal. Hundreds of people flow through the ferry terminal in a given day, so we decided this was likely a good location to recruit participants. One of the Chinese consultancy employees told me that westerners were perceived as trustworthy. She created a sign for me in Chinese with the criteria.

ethnographic-research-abroad-global-researchAs I was standing near the unloading zone for the ferry-goers, a man walked up to a member on the team and started pointing at me. I began to get excited; the sign worked and it appeared we would soon have another interview lined up.

Unfortunately, the team member informed me that he was warning her that if I continued to stand in this location, I would be arrested. I quickly folded up my sign and decided we needed to try another method. (If this were “rapid prototyping” this would be a good example of failing early, which is a good thing.)

In the end, the recruitment was successful, largely through the use of the WeChat network and the recruiting method our team developed. The personal referrals gave us credibility in a timely fashion.

LESSON 3: Focus not only on the act of capturing the idea, but also the ways to capture it.

ethnographic-research-abroad-global-researchWhile in China, we observed workers in an environment where photographs were prohibited and obvious note taking would have been strongly discouraged. It was necessary for us to discern a way to capture thoughts in this atypical environment.

Before we had left for China, we brainstormed potential ways we could take notes, including options such as Kapture (the voice recording wearable) or simply taking notes on smart phones. We decided this was something that we would have to figure out on the fly when we were in the situation where the note-taking was warranted.

I ended up writing notes on napkins and maps. The crucial piece was to capture the thought; the medium didn’t matter as long as the message was decipherable.

Additionally, every night each team member typed up 25 things they saw, heard or wondered about that day’s observations. It was imperative to write these on the same day the observations were made because the thoughts were still top of mind. Not only did it allow each team member time to refine their notes, but it sped up the preparatory work for the data analysis phase later in the project.

LESSON 4: Don’t be afraid to explore.

ethnographic-research-abroad-global-researchIn order to make the most of your time in a location (whether local or abroad), your schedule is usually packed. It is easy to get stuck in the routine of going straight back to the hotel after a long day of research. However, I would challenge you to instead step out and explore.

The more you explore the local culture, the more you can build empathy for the people living there. Even trying a local restaurant outside of the hotel is better than nothing.

Our time in China spanned over May Day, which meant most businesses were closed. We took advantage of this holiday and explored Shanghai. My colleague and I were interested in experiencing a “fake market” (a market that sells only knock-off items… think “Prado” instead of “Prada”).

On our way there we ended up lost and chanced upon a street seafood market. As we walked down the market, we were amazed by the types of live food that could be purchased, such as frog, eel, fish, crabs, etc. It was fascinating to see how another culture displays, sells and shops for their food. This was something that we would never have found, seen or heard of had we not lost our way.

LESSON 5: Try local traditions.

ethnographic-research-abroad-global-researchAs I stated above, we were headed to a fake market because we had heard that they were unique experiences. On our walk there, my colleague explained that it is customary to bargain at these types of markets. As a stereotypical American, I found the idea of bargaining uncomfortable. Talking about money can be awkward, and I did not want to insult someone by implying that their product’s selling price was higher than its worth. However, I wanted to take advantage of my time in China and so I decided I would try it.

Fortunately, I had purchased enough souvenirs before entering this market to give me a rough idea of the cost of items. When the first salesman was attempting to sell me an extremely overpriced plastic fan, I realized it was just a game of chicken. Who is going to crumble first… me or him? As it turned out, I had a great time bargaining for chopsticks, fans and post cards. Go figure!


ethnographic-research-abroad-global-researchOverall, when doing global research you should create a basic outline including what your goals are and how you might be able to achieve them. It is imperative that your plan is flexible.

No matter how much planning you do, the plan will change once you are on site.

Developing a flexible plan takes a great deal of pre-planning because you don’t know what you are going to be able to access while there (internet, phone, etc.) This also includes understanding simple things like ferry schedules, average cost of a taxi (including if they take cash or credit) and local social media platforms.

China was an adventure of a lifetime and I had an incredible time thanks to the amount of work my team (and extended team) and I put into planning.





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