Lucy's adventures in the middle east

My life as a qualitative researcher isn’t all glitz and glamour. But sometimes, when I’m not spending my evenings snaffling sandwiches in focus group viewing facilities around the UK, it also lets me channel my inner Bourdain and do the odd spot of globe-trotting. Though I’ve admittedly yet to land a gig doing depth interviews in Mauritius, my job has allowed me to explore some fascinating places I might not have otherwise experienced.

I’ve just returned from a particularly fascinating trip to the Middle East researching my client’s new international coffee shop store designs, whilst immersing myself in the café cultures of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The research featured certain traditional elements like accompanied store visits, focus groups and interviews with store colleagues. But, just as importantly, I was tasked to conduct some cultural anthropology and immerse myself in the coffee shop world of each market. As something of an avid shopper (and caramel frappe lover), it wasn’t exactly a hardship to have to explore the local souks and shopping malls and visit a few competitors. But it did mean having to step out of my comfort zone into societies that, from a Western viewpoint, aren’t necessarily renowned for their diversity and tolerance. I had to recognise and park my own preconceptions

to look at these cultures with empathy and openness, essential skills for any qualitative researcher

Without doing this, I wouldn’t have grasped the fascinating role that coffee shops play in these societies. This ultimately proved invaluable to the project. In these markets, coffee shops are real hubs of social activity. Places where people congregate to socialise, work and study, often for many hours at a time and in large groups. In stark contrast to the dominant ‘grab and go’ or quick ‘sit down’ nature of many coffee shop missions in the UK, here they are destinations in and of themselves. Often luxurious in design, with glamourous detailing and unique design features, perfect for that all important selfie. Our client was able to take these insights and ensure the global store design was tailored appropriately for these markets.

I learnt that international coffee shops are, in some ways, examples of how these markets are beginning to undergo real change and liberalisation, something the locals were keen to discuss with me. In Saudi Arabia, the women I spoke to were genuinely proud to detail how life was changing for them, celebrating what it meant to have more independence, for example the freedom to travel without a male chaperone, drive cars and most importantly benefit from wider career and education opportunities. In the context of international coffee shops they described the important role that they played, being a positive example of a progressive place where they can now spend time independently, unaccompanied by males, in locations that aren’t just single-sex.

In Bahrain they were also keen to explain that coffee shops were in fact the equivalent of our pubs and bars, lively places in the evening to go and socialise and spend time with friends, without fear of judgement. Yet in the day they were also using coffee shops for work and study, so they needed to be peaceful and have all of the necessary plugs and sockets to hand to facilitate this. So, the design needed to incorporate features that would deliver across both occasions. In Saudi Arabia and in Bahrain they were also keen to remind me that coffee shops, and indeed coffee beans, were part of their culture, not an appropriation from the West.

My experiences were fascinating and yielded some invaluable insights that wouldn’t have been gleaned just by reading interview transcripts or watching translated groups

It also reminded me of a number of things that you need to embrace to make a success of international research. Firstly, it’s so important to take your time. It’s not enough to just fly in and out of these locations in 24 hours. Cultural exploration and analysis requires time, both to get a feel for how local markets interact with things and what makes any key target audience tick. So much can be gleaned by just immersing yourself in the area, observing people in-situ going about their lives.

Secondly, you have to be bold and brave to make the most of it. Such adventures reward those willing to step outside of their comfort zone and explore beyond the confines of the hotel and research facilities. Some of the most important insights I gleaned were from visiting the local Souks and shopping malls, visiting competitors and seeing how differently people were using local traditional Shisha cafes versus global coffee shops.

Thirdly, it’s vital to be sensitive to different cultures. In these markets, Westerners can still be something of a novelty and something people aren’t accustomed to seeing everywhere, especially when research is being conducted outside of the ‘tourist’ enclaves. It’s important to do what you can to blend in and respect the local culture. I made sure I observed the local customs, dressing appropriately and making myself as invisible as possible to be the fly on the wall I needed to be.

You also have to remember that not only are you in the privileged position of meeting participants, but you also have the benefit of working with local partner agencies. These local market contacts are vital to the success of such projects. Their inside knowledge is invaluable, not least in advising on local customs. So it’s important to be inquisitive and take the time to build a rapport with local translators and moderators. This can yield a veritable gold mine of insight nuggets, and added a huge amount of value to the study we were running.

Finally, you must harness your qualitative superpower, which is the ability to observe. While you learn lots by listening to what people tell you, watching how they interact with their environment and with each other can tell you so much about what makes or breaks a retail experience in these markets.

I learned so much just by quietly watching people as they enjoyed the coffee shop and engaged with certain elements (and ignored others)

For example by observing and feeding back that customers were spending time in large groups socialising, our client was able to ensure the store design and furniture could easily accommodate more than solo or small groups of visitors.

Though I wouldn’t exactly call myself an ‘intrepid explorer’, being a Qual researcher often pushes me to experience new things I almost certainly wouldn’t have otherwise in the name of market research. Though I will always enjoy hearing Brian from Barnsley set the world to rights, my job can be genuinely quite exhilarating when it takes me to pastures new. And it’s great for amassing anecdotes and insights to share with colleagues and friends alike. If you’re ever in need of an explorer or would just like our perspective on the trials and tribulations of international research, you know who to call!