Considering the impact of regional variance when recruiting for user research

When carrying out research do we place enough importance on geography? Based on the sparsity of research recruitment agencies outside of London I’m guessing we don’t. There’s certainly an appreciation for regional variation when designing on a global scale, but do we put as much rigor into our approach when the audience is limited to just one country, and do we need to?

Anecdotal evidence

Last year I was fortunate enough to work with a well-known charity (top 10, based on donations). With hundreds of locations across the UK they have a significant impact on local communities, and their volunteers and supporters are incredibly passionate about their cause. Because of this they’d often refer to themselves as being a collection of small local charities rather than one large national organisation. Interestingly, during the pitching process we were the only agency to suggest carrying out research across the UK. Those who also discussed user research purely focused on London or the charities home town as possible locations.

The issue with both of these is that they represent extremes. London is where the charity has the least amount of public awareness, but does the most work. Whereas their hometown naturally has the greatest public awareness and positive perception. By carrying out qualitative face-to-face research in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Midlands in addition to both of these locations (supported by more quantitative national activities) we were able to build a much more rounded picture.

Our mini UK tour proved to be invaluable, helping to form the backbone of our eventual solution. If we had limited our research purely to London our solution would have been incorrectly weighted to educating people on the proposition rather than dealing with a more engaged and experienced audience.

Urban vs. rural

I’m not suggesting London should be ignored as a research destination, or any other city for that matter. It’s more about understanding the potential implications location can have on your research findings.

My background is not in applied research, but my understanding is that the basic principle when testing a sample of a larger population, is that the sample has to be representative of the whole population otherwise the conclusions that are drawn are limited and can easily be misconstrued.

Comparing urban and rural living we can easily draw up a list of attributes that are diametrically opposed. For instance, you could argue that someone living in an urban environment is more likely to use public transport, therefore have more dead time on their hands during a commute allowing them to consume content via a mobile or tablet device more frequently. In comparison someone living in a rural area may have to reply on a long car journey to get to work, therefor consuming more audio content such as podcasts. Someone living out of town may be effected by slower broadband speeds, be more likely to shop online or have greater disposable income than a city dweller on a comparative salary.

I know where you live

In the instance of the charity, visiting multiple locations and discovering notable regional variations didn’t lead us to create a site that relied on geography as a navigational aid, more that the sense of place, of relevance, was intrinsic to the experience. In actual fact our research helped us to better understand the various audience types and led to a task-based navigation. What it did help us to understand was how important local context was to people and how much more they would potentially engage with the charity if we could bring what they experienced off-line to the online environment.

A local solution for local people

I’m not suggesting you should include multiple rounds of testing spread across several locations with every project you face, after-all it can be time consuming and costly, and anyway, insight however small is better than nothing at all, right? I don’t believe regional variation will necessarily be of relevance every time, but, as with many other factors such as literacy or education, cultural background, socio-economic, gender or age, the location you choose to carry out your research needs to be something you take the time to consider fully.

Setting a standard

UX research isnt to the same standard as scientific practices, but we should look to be more diligent in our approach. Regional variance isn’t an issue when it comes to usability testing, as small groups of people will flag a large number of issues, whether or not they’d actually use the service is arguably of little importance. Returning to the example of the charity site, getting someone who has no interest in the charity to test the donation journey is still of benefit as they’ll still indicate if the call-to-action is misplaced or whether or not the request for giftaid Is unclear. However, if carrying out initial research for a travel company to help define a strategy for cruise holidays by running sessions in the same city they sail from, you’d struggle when the majority of sales come from outside of the area.

By researching across multiple locations you are better informed to focus a solution on the right approach, understanding the problems people are trying to solve or tasks they are looking to complete. So next time you think about gathering some initial insight give a thought to where you’re gathering it; will it make a difference? is it just down to convenience, time or cost implications? Or because its the right place to speak to the right people.

1 comment Write a comment

  1. Hi Paul,

    I loved your writeup on ‘Teaching user experience with Lego’. I think you have a real nice way there to bring out the importance of user experience in designing. I can only imagine how interesting and insightful it must be to observe the interactions between the maker and instructor! It is all about developing that perspective at the end, I guess. I’d like to experiment with it myself someday! :) Well, after reading it, I couldn’t help but read your other articles too.

    I completely agree with you on the importance of having the correct sample population for a research to get authentic results and taking care of the regional variance for user research projects. A thought just stuck me – isn’t it also an area where market research would also fit in? Do you think user researchers can and should work more closely with the market research teams to benefit from the data and analysis that they do at their end? I don’t know if that really happens in the real world, but maybe it is another possible extension of the user experience role!

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