Multi-lingual user research

Posted by Lucy Collins on Jun 4, 2021 3:12:50 PM
Lucy Collins

The UK is a wonderfully diverse and multicultural place. As much as 8% of the UK population, some 5.3 million people, report their first language is not English.

Although many of these people will also speak some English, reading online content may still be a challenge and one we should consider when writing content for the web.

While it may not be possible to cater for all linguistic variations, considering the most prevalent languages and how English content works for these individuals should definitely be on our radar.

But how to do it? By conducting research with these users!

A recent client of ours did just that! They wished to get feedback from individuals living in London who spoke little to no English. They wanted to understand if the foreign language content on their website worked for these users and how they found navigating parts of the site that were not translated.

This taught us a number of useful lessons about conducting multi-lingual user research that we wanted to share.

Finding foreign language participants

Finding participants who speak little to no English can be a challenging task. Standard recruitment channels, such as our database and social media, often do not reach the right people. So, we rely instead on helpful third party organisations, such as charities and refugee centres who are able to facilitate introductions.

Bear in mind that many of these individuals may have other considerations that make taking part in research difficult, such a limited access to internet and digital devices. Most may have a mobile phone, but not a laptop, so if conducting the research remotely, you may need to make an extra effort to connect with these individuals.

Facilitating research with an interpreter

As our research participants spoke little to no English and our facilitators were sadly not fluent in a range of languages, including Lingala, Tigrinya and Vietnamese, we employed the services of interpreters to helps us conduct the research.

Due to Covid, we were limited to conducting the research remotely. Ideally, we would prefer to get these participants in a research lab to make more of the silent body language signals that cannot be easily conveyed over Zoom.

Nevertheless, we picked up plenty of useful tips on how to facilitate research sessions with an interpreter:

  • Be concise with your questions: it’s harder to ask open, non-directional questions because they’re too complex, and the interpreter won’t necessarily translate them exactly as you might like
  • Prioritise what you want to cover: You can’t get through as much in each session so be clear about what is most important to cover
  • Observe behaviours as much as possible: in usability testing, we always recommend observing behaviours as well as listening to attitudes. Due to the language barrier, behaviours are more important than ever so should be carefully observed to pick up any usability issues
  • Be aware of technical issues and allow time for it: remote research always comes with the slight risk of technical issues. When there are two other people on the call this means double the risk! Give yourself plenty of time to account for this
  • Use body language: Visually engaging with the tester is important to reassure them and make them feel comfortable. It can be difficult to respond at the right time when you don’t know what they are saying but a smile goes a long way when building rapport

Taking the time to speak to individuals with limited or no English may not seem like a priority task for many organisations. However, this is a group that should not be forgotten as the implications of writing content in simple, plain English or making it available in other languages extends much further.

For example, many native English speaker have low literacy levels which can make it difficult for them to understand online content that is wordy and complex. Likewise, some users with disabilities may struggle reading content online if it is not clear and simple.

By testing content with these niche groups, you will improve the online experience for all users.

Read more: Usability testing facilitation top tips

Topics: User Insights, Usability Testing

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