How Travel is Making me a Better Researcher

I’ve written before about my mobile life, where I spend a few months in a place before moving on.  I’m lucky to have the technology to be able to service my clients from anywhere on the globe (and to have clients who recognize that my work is the same if I’m in New Orleans, Santo Domingo, or Bangkok). Lately I’ve been thinking about how this kind of life is actually making me a better researcher. A few things I’ve learned:

Making the best with what’s available. I’ve been traveling in places where using what you have at hand is a national pastime. Own a vehicle? You’re now a taxi. Have a working wifi connection and a coffee maker? Your house is now the local internet café. I’m letting this spill over into my client work, too. If a small business or non-profit doesn’t have the budget to use a survey vendor, I’ll use SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics. If focus group facilities are out of reach, I won’t turn up my nose at doing groups in a hotel conference room, the back room of a restaurant, or even a church or community center.  I don’t think budget shouldn’t stand in the way of doing research, and I’m not afraid to get creative to make it happen for my clients.

Heightened awareness of communication nuances. I’ve been in the Dominican Republic for the past few months, leading my non-work life almost exclusively in Spanish. I’m constantly thinking about language and communication and trying to avoid making mistakes like saying “I want to burn myself (quiero quemarme)” when what I mean to say is “I want to stay (quiero quedarme).” Survey design in any language is a linguistically intense exercise; the smallest change (from “pretty” to “beautiful,” for instance) can have a huge impact on results, and being nimble with language is critical.

How Travel is Making me a Better ResearcherDifferent strokes for different folks. In rural Thailand, when I asked for a liter of gas for my motorbike, it was poured through a funnel from a one-liter water bottle. I watched local kids in Mexico City play with model airplanes constructed from soda cans. Our neighborhood fruit stand here in the Dominican Republic has a sign that I’d be shocked to see in the States: “God bless this business.” All of these observations serve to remind me that people use products differently, value different things, and have distinct experiences. This means they will undoubtedly respond to research differently; even if a survey is not considered “cross-cultural,” every respondent will view your questions through the lens of their own life experiences, giving researchers yet another reason to be clear and concise in their questioning and take context into account when analyzing results.

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Founder of Southpaw Insights