Considerations When Conducting User Research In Other Countries: A Brazilian Case Study

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Claire Carlson is a Seattle-based UX designer who has been a part of the Blink UX design team since 2011. She enjoys finding clever and elegant ways to … More about Claire ↬

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Claire Carlson had the opportunity to conduct in-home user interviews in São Paulo on behalf of a Brazilian real estate company called Zap Imóveis. This project provided her with invaluable insider knowledge on how to best conduct in-home user interviews in Brazil and, more broadly, how to conduct field research in foreign countries using the same underlying principles. This article presents her tips for foreigners planning to conduct in-home user interviews in Brazil, including parallels with research in India, China, and Spain.

Following a recent economic windfall, Brazilians are faced with more choices of how to spend their money. This provides a situation for good UX to make a huge impact and sway customers to buy new products or services. Companies inside and outside Brazil are interested in capturing a part of this new market.

My company, Blink UX, had the opportunity to conduct in-home user interviews in São Paulo on behalf of a Brazilian real estate company called Zap Imóveis. This project provided me with invaluable insider knowledge on how to best conduct in-home user interviews in Brazil and, more broadly, how to conduct field research in foreign countries using the same underlying principles.

Construction in the growing Morumbi neighborhood of São Paulo. (Large preview)

To understand target users’ approach to the process, we interviewed eight people who had either just bought a home or were looking for a home. It made sense to interview people where they lived for this study; seeing their neighborhoods and the characteristics of their homes helped us better understand their motivations for buying homes in general and what they looked for in their next home.

For example, security is an issue in most parts of São Paulo, which is why ‘24-hour doorman’ was a popular search criterion for apartments. Many homes where there is not a doorman on duty have metal bars on the front door, which made it hard for us to knock. Instead, we would clap loudly outside the door to let a participant know we were there. This, among many other cultural nuances, could only be truly understood by immersing ourselves in the user’s environment.

This article presents my tips for foreigners planning to conduct in-home user interviews in Brazil, including parallels with research in India, China, and Spain.

Start The Planning And Visa Application Process Early

Before the project officially landed we were already investigating applying for visas. The process comprises many steps (in my case, I needed to collect ten different pieces of documentation to prove that I was, in fact, planning to do business in Brazil). If you’re traveling to Brazil with a passport from North America, Asia, or Africa, you’re going to need to start the visa process right away.

We needed to rush order my visa, which set us back about $1,000 USD, because we were going to travel soon after the project started. For anybody who has a few weeks to wait to get a visa then feel free to mail it to a consulate. If you’re like me and need to rush order your visa, your application will need to be hand-delivered to a Brazilian embassy or consulate. This is likely inconvenient for most people because you won’t find embassies and consulates in every city. The good news is that there are a lot of companies out there that will deliver your paperwork for you.

Partner With A Great Local Firm

We needed to find a research firm to help us moderate the interviews and we needed to find it fast. Within four days, we interviewed three companies via Skype to understand their processes, experience, and services. We knew a contact at one of the firms and found the other two through an Internet search. At the end of the interview process, we decided to partner with Insitum, an innovation consulting company which we learned about through an existing contact. We chose them because they had extensive experience with ethnographic research and seemed thoroughly excited about working with us. The day after signing the contract they were already helping us with study planning.

Insitum exposed us to cultural nuances we needed to consider during the research and future design phases. We learned nearly as much from the Insitum team as we did from the research itself. On our way to interviews, they gave us background information on how the neighborhood we were visiting had evolved in recent years. This helped us better understand the perspective of the participants who we interviewed. For example, we interviewed a participant who lived in an area where crime had increased rapidly in the previous few months, so we understood why she was looking to move into a new apartment so quickly.

Hosting three to four strangers in your home is awkward, especially when you’re telling them about very personal things such as your dream home. Our research partners made participants feel at ease. They brought expertise to the table that we simply wouldn’t have been able to achieve by communicating with participants through a translator without a native moderator. I am confident that Insitum’s presence contributed to how open participants were with us, and helped us capture high-quality data.

Remember that when selecting a research partner you’re not only looking for a team with expertise in gathering data, you also want to consider how they can help you synthesize and report the data. They are likely to catch themes you will not simply because they are more familiar with the culture. It is important to discuss the strategy for reporting data well in advance because what is considered standard to one party could be considered non-standard to another. Tip: The size of the research firm doesn’t matter. My colleagues who have conducted research in Brazil, Spain, Japan, Germany, India, and the UK all agree that even small and independent foreign firms produce very high-quality work.

Interviewing participants in their homes. (Large preview)

Hire A Real-Time Translator

I cannot stress highly enough the value of a high-quality translator. Neither my colleague nor I spoke Portuguese. We knew we needed someone to moderate the interviews, and we knew it would be important for us to be able to ask follow-up questions. We requested that when each of the three firms sent us a quote they included the cost of a real-time translator for ten 90-minute sessions. The quotes for translation ranged from $5,600 to $8,500 USD and it was worth every penny. The translator has a unique role not to be confused with someone who is simply fluent in two languages. Experienced translators are able to comprehend and verbalize meaning very quickly. If the subject matter of your study is very specific, like healthcare for example, you need to find a translator with experience translating on those topics.

The real-time translation worked just about as you think it would if you were at the United Nations. The participant, moderator, translator, and myself would all sit around the participant’s kitchen table or in their living room. The translator wore a headset with a microphone and would speak very softly in English, which would come through on my headphones. The speech was very nearly real-time and incredibly effective – most importantly, it didn’t disrupt the conversation between the participant and the moderator.

It was imperative for us to understand exactly what was said. There were many colloquial phrases that did not have direct translations into English. For example, one participant used a common Brazilian phrase that goes something like, “If a cat gets burned once he will never get burned again.” The participant followed up by saying “Good luck translating that one!” Our translator did a great job helping us understand these colloquial phrases, which in turn helped me better understand the participant’s reactions. Make sure you use a translator who comes recommended – and remember that Brazilian Portuguese is different from European Portuguese.

Real-time translation. (Large preview)

Limit The Number Of Observers And Make Sure Your Client Observes A Few Sessions

It’s always a good idea for clients to observe user interviews because watching in real time usually means they are more focused and catch more detail – it’s easy to get distracted by other tasks when watching a recording on a laptop after the fact. However, there is such a thing as too many observers. Aim to bring only two to four people to each interview, otherwise the participant can feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable. If you’re not fluent in Portuguese then two of those people will likely be the moderator and translator; beyond that, plan to either bring a client observer or colleague, but not both.

This goes for research in other countries as well. My colleague recently conducted in-home user interviews in Hyderabad, India where participant homes were very small. In addition, it’s typical for extended families to live under one roof in India (parents, kids, aunts, uncles, grandparents). In her case she could only bring one observer to each session because there simply wasn’t enough space for a third person to sit.

Plan More Time Than You Think You Need Between Interviews

If you ever find yourself in São Paulo conducting interviews in varied locations, plan at least 90 minutes between interviews to navigate traffic. Similarly, if you are conducting a lab study, I also recommend planning extra time between sessions to account for participants who are running late because of traffic. In 2013, CNN published an article noting that São Paulo is the “seventh most congested city in the world.” It didn’t take long for us to understand just how bad it was. On one occasion Google Maps informed us that it would normally take 22 minutes to get to our next interview, but in current traffic it would take over an hour. Unexpectedly, this was one of the most important takeaways from the trip because it helped us understand why locals are so motivated to find homes near the subway.

Over-Recruit In Anticipation Of No-Shows

Owing to heavy traffic congestion and a generally laid-back culture, participants cancelling interviews or starting very late is not uncommon. We had a couple of last minute cancellations that we struggled to fill until the very end. It would have been a major missed opportunity to not reach our quota after spending so much time, energy and money to travel to Brazil and plan for the research. For these reasons you need to over-recruit your study. Plan to tack on an extra couple of participants for every 10 whom you would normally recruit and be prepared to go with the flow. Trust me, it’s worth the expense to have that security. My colleague avoided this problem during his research in Brazil by setting aside a half-day at the end of the study that he could fill with people who needed to reschedule. Below are additional tips about recruiting:


When recruiting, you will want to encourage candidates to participate with some sort of compensation. Our research partner explained in some cases this could be a bottle of high-quality liquor. For our study we used $190 USD as the incentive. If you go the cash route, you will want to make sure the amount reflects both the duration and location of the interview. Our interviews were 90 minutes each, so a 60-minute interview might be $125 USD. Similarly, it would be appropriate to compensate participants more for in-home research rather than lab research because they are allowing you and your colleagues to visit their homes.

Class Structure

Brazil is different from the U.S. in that they have a well-defined and widely understood class structure based on income level. Levels range from A (the super rich) to E (the very poor). Don’t be afraid to ask candidates what class level they fall into when you’re recruiting. We were looking for a mix in class levels, yet wanted to focus on those who would likely search for homes online; thus we recruited participants from A, B and C level classes. When you’re in Brazil, the class structure will become clearer when you see extremely low-income communities side-by-side with the super rich, especially in urban areas. Note: it may be easier to recruit participants in A, B and C classes since it is more likely that they have a phone where you can reach them.


Participants were intentionally recruited from among different types of neighborhoods across the city of São Paulo. Because the economy was improving rapidly across the board, low-income families were moving into the homes of middle-income families and middle-income families were moving into the homes of high-income families. A majority of Brazil was affected and, in turn, a majority of Brazil’s population were target users of the Zap website. We also sought a mix of single people, families, and couples.


Consider that Brazilians celebrate a lot of holidays where offices and businesses are closed. Make sure you familiarize yourself with these dates so you don’t risk trying to recruit participants during the week of Carnival, for example.

Keep An Open Mind During Your Research For Unexpected Lessons

It turned out that our unfamiliarity with Brazilian culture was an enormous advantage for us because it allowed us to approach the project with open minds. For example, people use maps in a different way in Brazil than we do in the States – among the eight participants we interviewed, most explained that landmarks are more important than geographical direction. A cab driver wouldn’t tell you to walk a half-mile north, he would tell you to keep walking until you get to that really busy intersection with a gas station.

We couldn’t assume we understood behavior based on our experience in our labs back home. This is why in-person, in-home research was imperative. My tip for you: don’t assume that behaviors or interaction trends you’ve seen among participants in your own country would translate to a Brazilian audience. For that matter, don’t assume behaviors or interaction trends apply for any study. Even our Brazilian client was proven wrong once or twice: They informed us that Zap’s users are not interested in using maps at all; however, nearly all participants explained that they liked to view a property on a map before they visit a home to get an understanding of the surrounding area.

Interviewing participants in their homes. (Large preview)

Learn About Brazilian Customs And Culture

It is always a good idea to learn about the customs and culture of the country you’re visiting. Here are a few observations I made while I was there that those new to UX research in Brazil might find helpful:


As in many European countries, physical closeness is more prominent than in countries like the U.S. It is traditional for Brazilians to kiss each other on the cheek once upon first meeting, even in professional settings. You can expect to greet participants in this way especially for in-home research. For Americans this may take a little getting used to, but rest assured, Brazilians are extremely friendly people and will make you feel at ease. Of the participants and members of the research team that we interacted with, every single one of them was very friendly and open. Strangers talk like old friends. I witnessed this first-hand during the interviews and it helped us gather some extremely valuable findings.

Building Trust

Building trust is important for in-home research in any country. In Brazil, relationships and loyalty are incredibly important to building trust. Make an effort to build relationships with your participants, research partners, and clients in Brazil by not rushing them into making decisions or by making recommendations without fully understanding the problem. Building trust will be different in different countries. During an India-based study, my colleague learned that building trust requires equality between the participant and the researcher — that means equality in socioeconomic status and in dress. Similarly, it was important that at least one female researcher was present any time they interviewed a female participant. Whatever country you’re visiting, be sure to find out ahead of time how to build trust with the people you will be interacting with.


English is not spoken as widely in Brazil as you might think and locals often appreciate it when you put the effort into learning a few common phrases. That goes for people at restaurants and shops, and the participants you interview. Each time we entered a participant’s home we greeted them by saying “Obrigada por me receber em sua casa,” which means “Thank you for having me in your home.”

Working Late

You may end up working late into the night on research days. The workday in Brazil typically ends around 19:00, so catching the after-work participants may mean you don’t get to your hotel until 22:00 or later.


Social networking is a big deal in Brazil. The Wall Street Journal reported that in September 2012, Brazilians spent 208% more time on Facebook than they did one year earlier. This “sharing culture” translates to in-person interactions as well. You can expect to hear participants explain that they rarely make decisions about what house to buy or even what T-shirt to buy without consulting with family, friends, and their contacts on social media.

Lastly, don’t expect to see a lot of new devices. Tariffs on imported technology are extremely high (an iPhone costs three or four times what it does in the U.S.), so many Brazilians use mid-to-low end Windows and Android devices. Similarly, don’t assume your participants will use the same digital tools for tasks like email, shopping, or information gathering. My colleague conducted in-home research in multiple countries and discovered that in Shanghai, China, where online help content was minimal, participants relied on other sources such as print articles; whereas in Barcelona, Spain, the help content was very robust and relied upon heavily.


The findings from our research informed a redesign of Zap’s web experience. As a UX consultancy, sometimes it takes years to see the impact of our work out in the wild, which is why, one year after we finished the project, it was especially rewarding to hear our client say “the main KPI for this project, which is leads per visits, has improved 35% since we launched the new design.”

The site’s success would have been impossible if we had simply been given research data collected by a third party. We needed to be there to see how bad traffic was, to see the look on someone’s face when he told us how frustrating it was to find a new home, and to see the client’s reaction to participants’ comments. There is tremendous value in immersing yourself in research abroad. I hope the lessons I learned will help you prepare to take the leap.

In summary, if you’re new to in-home user research in Brazil, keep the following in mind:

  • Start the planning and visa application process early
  • Partner with a great local firm
  • Hire a real-time translator
  • Limit the number of observers to four, but make sure your client observes a few sessions
  • Over-recruit in anticipation of no-shows
  • Plan more time than you think you need between sessions
  • Keep an open mind during your research for unexpected learnings
  • Learn about Brazilian customs and culture before you go


Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (cc, il, og, ml, mrn)