Customer interview around a dining table in Tokyo, Japan.

Design research using simultaneous translation

Three seconds later – it’s like firewood.

This is the answer to the question – How do you interview people in a different language?

… A question I’m asked often.

When working in markets where English isn’t commonly spoken I use simultaneous translation. My client and I listen in English to a conversation in the local language. Translation is a skill I have respect for, and it’s indispensable for in-market customer insight work.

While a well-briefed bilingual interviewer interviews people in their local language, the translator relays the conversation in English through a mic and earbuds, delivering aural goodness on about a three second delay. This sounds disconnected, but on reflection from a recent study in Japan I found this could be even better than a conversation in my own language… Kinda like firewood.

As a pile of firewood warms you twice – once when you chop it, then again when you burn it – seeing and hearing the mannerisms, accent, tone and gestures, then hearing it in your own language a few seconds later allows a time buffer to process what I’m seeing and hearing, first as an emotional response, followed closely behind by the cognitive. Even with a highly-skilled translator it takes a few minutes to get used to, but in time the nuances and meaning are flowing.

At times my client or myself will ask questions via the translator, but hearing a dialogue between two people is much more natural, so this the way most of an interview plays out. Just like sitting around a warm fire. Mmmm.

Customer interview around a dining table in Tokyo, Japan.

Hard to read the speech bubbles? Click to enlarge.

I took the photo above during a home visit in a study into wellness and diet in Japan for a functional foods producer. You’ll see the participant is making eye contact with the client while answering a question in Japanese. This is a great sign; A. My client is super curious and wants to learn, B. The connection created by the simultaneous translator is strong enough both the participant and client can have a natural dialogue.

So you wanna be a tour guide?

If you’re heading into a market where your language isn’t commonly spoken by your customer, find a solid local partner and the tech-setup required – which incidentally is similar to what a tour guide uses on a walking tour – a mic/transmitter for the translator, with a receiver and earbuds for each listener.

Here’s the one I rented in Japan:

A microphne and transmitter plus recivers with earphones. Batteries.

Get the tech.

You can buy high end sets with one transmitter and one or two receivers made by microphone brands like Sennheiser, but
… Turns out the same tech is used by tour guides, who evidently don’t need all the features.
So you  can search Amazon, Alibaba for things such as:
Translation transmitter & receiver, Assisted listening devices, Wireless listening system, Tour guide audio system.

Here are a couple of sets which might do the trick. 

Ali Express:


These packs can come with dozens of receivers, but I personally can’t see a time when you’d need more than four (It can get crowded in a Tokyo apartment). … but I’ve also heard people (The UK government) say ‘User Research is a team sport’ … so goodness knows how big your team might be.

What about recording?

Microphone on, but shoes off in Japan.

Microphone on, but shoes off in Japan.

High end versions of this tech may allow you to record, but most of these transmitter/receiver setups don’t have this function. You’ll need to have a separate recording of the English language translation.

The best way to do this is for the translator to hold a directional speech recorder fairly close to their face. (as shown in the photo above). This way if you’re  listening later it’s definitely going to be the English you’re hearing. If you put a recorder too far away from the translator, you’ll have a battle on your hands as you try to listen to the English through the other language as both will be competing.

Robots to the rescue?

New technologies, like this internet connected automatic translator may evolve to be useful in this context, but for now I can’t imagine it having the intelligence to translate the nuances and meaning required from understanding a person in the way we like to during design research.

Happy travels…


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