Four Languages and a Suitcase. A Polyglot’s Guide to International Qualitative Research

Irina, Research Manager, breaks down her experience of working on international projects whilst at Mustard and how the team fully immerses themselves into different cultures in order to get the best results.

It was just over three years ago that I started my adventure at Mustard, and what a journey it’s been! I’ve had the great opportunity to conduct qualitative research projects in 20 countries across the globe, and even travelled to 6 of these on multiple occasions to run fieldwork and meet my clients. I’ve also had the chance to put my language skills in practice, conducting fieldwork not only in English, but also in Spanish and French (all of these being languages that I speak in addition to my mother tongue, Romanian).

I’ve learned a lot on this adventure, and I want to share with you some of the best practices that we’ve put in place at Mustard to make sure we deliver excellent international qualitative research for our clients.

We start by understanding the context

Whether it’s cultural, market, local or global trends, reviewing existing knowledge makes us better prepared to tackle your research brief and suggest the right methodology. We always start by immersing ourselves in the research topic and the target markets. We also take time to understand the contexts that our potential research participants navigate on a daily basis, whether global or local, and their impact on perceptions, attitudes and behaviours. We also use theoretical concepts drawing from social sciences, psychology or behavioural science to further shape the research design and analysis.

Understanding the context

We manage, coordinate and visualise…

Once an international research project has been commissioned, we plan, plan, and then plan again! We’ve found that a huge driver of success for an international project, especially a multi-market, mixed-methods study, is very strong and thorough project management. A delight for control freaks like me!

From early stages I always like to visualise every stage of the project because it really enables me to break it down to the tiniest detail. This allows us to foresee and prevent any issues coming down the line and adjust the strategy accordingly. Our clients can then rest assured that things are under control.

…but retain a high degree of flexibility!

Knowing what is going to happen and when is extremely important, but sometimes, especially once fieldwork starts, things might go in a different direction than expected, especially with on the ground international research. For this we always bring a flexible mindset that allows us to react and adapt. Depending on the complexity of the project, we sometimes come equipped with several back-up plans that take us to a solution quicker.

We have a strong network of local partners

While it’s extremely important for us to design and coordinate a global project from Mustard, we are aware of the importance of local knowledge and expertise. For this reason, we’ve spent time and resources to develop a strong network of local research partners that we rely on, particularly for qualitative studies.

And I want to emphasise on the word partners, because together we engage in a collaborative process that helps us best deliver the work for our clients. We discuss the research objectives through a process of knowledge exchange and we take time to go through a thorough briefing process. Our partners are also our sounding board along the way, advising us on the practicalities of conducting research in the local markets. And finally, we use their local knowledge and expertise to contextualise the research results further.

An engaging process makes for an engaged partner, and feedback like the one below really makes our day!

Unfortunately, today was the last day! It was one of the most interesting jobs that I did! Thanks a lot for giving me this opportunity! (Moderator in Brazil)

Four Languages and a Suitcase. A Polyglot’s Guide to International Qualitative Research

We observe qualitative fieldwork as much as possible

When the language or cultural barriers prevent us from conducting fieldwork ourselves, we observe as much of the fieldwork as possible, either in person or via streaming services. I’ve personally travelled to countries like France, Spain or Germany to observe our local moderators conduct focus groups, but I’ve also stayed up late or woke up super early to observe groups being moderated in countries like China, Brazil and Australia.

Observing fieldwork allows us to provide further support to our local partners should they need it, and gives us immediate access to the research insights as they are generated. This gives us more control over the research process – we can pick up on any interesting market specific aspects and further refine our approach if needed, depending on the realities in each market.

This also makes us better equipped to keep our clients updated without delays, and our post-group write-ups always come in handy when it comes to writing interim reports, particularly for multi-staged, qual and quant research projects.

And finally, this keeps us engaged, connected and present! Even if we observe remotely, for just a few hours we can be in different corners of the world, witnessing the creation of meaning and allowing ourselves to be inspired!

Where possible, we conduct fieldwork ourselves

On several international qualitative projects, it’s been proven more cost-effective to travel and conduct fieldwork ourselves when language did not pose a barrier. I’ve had amazing opportunities to conduct face to face interviews in Spanish speaking markets across continents, and I’ve recently moderated an online community in French.

Beyond cost efficiency and a higher level of control, this allows us to be better grounded in the research and prevents the insights from being lost in translation.

We write global stories with local chapters

With an international research project, especially a multi-market one, there are many stories to tell. There is the global narrative that goes beyond borders, but there are also the local stories that have their own voices and threads.

It’s common practice at Mustard to ‘lock ourselves in a room’, either on our own or collaboratively with our clients, and run storyboarding workshops sometimes for an entire day, looking for commonalities, differences and generating insights that are always ‘so what?’ tested. Although exhausted, we come out on the other side with beautifully crafted stories that we take great pride in, and we’ll do everything we can so that our clients do too!

And finally, we learn and self-reflect along the way

Conducting international research is fascinating, and a never-ending learning process! At Mustard we’ve developed the right tools, networks and processes that help us conduct international research to a high standard. However, we also acknowledge the need to constantly improve, and we’re continuously learning from the latest thinking in the sector, as well as from our clients, partners and participants. And some of us are even further refining our language skills!

Self-reflection and courage are crucial too! International research can sometimes take you on unfamiliar, uncharted territories. You have to be brave and courageous enough to acknowledge and deconstruct your own biases and previously held beliefs and to be aware of how they might impact your research project. We’re mindful of our own baggage, and that makes us better researchers!

Conducting international research is a true privilege. At Mustard we always come prepared to dive in with the excitement of a new challenge and the humility of being part of something bigger. If you want to go on this journey with us, we’d love to hear from you!