Case Study: Conducting User Research with an Interpreter

“The world is becoming increasingly globalized” may be a cliché, but in the tech world, it’s often true. One way that UX practitioners experience this is through researching and designing products that may be used across the world or by speakers of many different languages. If your product’s intended audience includes users who don’t speak English, it’s important to include representative participants in the user research, whether conducting contextual research or a usability study. How does an English-speaking UXer conduct research with a Spanish speaker? An Arabic speaker? A Thai speaker? Or all three? By including an interpreter in the research activities.

Conducting research with an interpreter may seem complex or intimidating, but with extra planning, it needn’t be. The tips and learnings below will help you prepare to execute a study when you and your research participants don’t speak the same language.

A quick note about terminology: a “translator” is a person who takes words (text or audio) and translates it from one language into another. An “interpreter” is a person who conducts simultaneous translation, taking one person’s spoken words and repeating them in a different language to facilitate dialogue between people who speak different languages.


There are all sorts of cases where there might be a language barrier between you and your user: apps designed for travelers, products and websites that will be used by immigrant populations, products trying to reach global markets, development for specific departments of state and national government. In the United States alone, over 25 million people speak English less than “very well” according to the US Census.

Imagine you’re designing an app for the New York city subway system: hundreds of languages are spoken in NY, and current estimates show that only about half of New York households are English-only. These numbers don’t even account for international visitors who might also use a transportation app. Amongst your users you’ll have native English speakers, bilingual speakers, folks who know some English, and people who don’t speak or read English at all.

User Research and Language Barriers

Several months ago, a client approached our team at Functionaire about developing a digital product that would be used to help manage large commercial buildings, like office buildings in metropolitan areas. We began the discovery process, focusing on the various user personas, as is typical of our process.

The single largest group of users — and the group that our client most wanted to serve — were building attendants. These users form a very diverse group—in terms of age, gender, technology habits, and spoken languages. In fact, for the majority of users, English is a second language, if they spoke it at all. Limiting our observational research and contextual inquiry to only attendants who are fluent in English would have resulted in incomplete insights into the needs of the users. Just as one would not want all research participants to be under age 35 if researching a product whose intended audience is people aged 21-60, we wanted a representative mix of example users.

The user makeup also had us asking how we could ensure a usable, useful product regardless of English fluency. The obvious answer is to translate the app. This is a great solution if your users all speak the same language or you have a majority user base. In this case, however, users’ first languages included everything from Spanish to Hmong to Polish to Armenian. For a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), translating into all these languages would not be practical.

Instead, part of our task as designers was to create an experience that would be comprehensible to English-as-second-language speakers. We decided that a key indicator for our success in building the app would be to continue including a diverse group of users in the later, usability-focused rounds of research.

four smiling people sit around a table with a computer
Photo by Hunter Newton on Unsplash

Interpretation in the Research Phase

Even if the product will be translated before release, translation may not be possible or feasible for iterative research. And in any case, if you are conducting research, you need to be able to communicate in real-time with users. The common, and so important, usability study instruction to “Think out-loud” doesn’t do you much good if you can’t understand what’s being said.

After-the-fact translation, rather than during the sessions, means you won’t be able to ask follow-up questions, redirect a user, or answer their questions. When testing prototypes and making design improvements, simultaneous translation during research may be the best option to ensure you’re garnering global insights. And, of course, if the product is translated, but you don’t speak the language(s) of your test subjects fluently, working with a simultaneous interpreter is necessary.

Resist the urge to use Google Translate and do the interpretation yourself. For one thing, the quality will not capture the level of nuance that is needed in user research. For another, imagine how awkward it would be to deal with during a conversation. It’s simply not a tool designed for verbal communication.

As for translating the UI copy—we also highly advise against Google Translate. While it may be frugal, it is sure to be flawed. You need someone who can understand the context of the product (and UI copy) when translating.

Another tool that comes to mind is the simultaneous translation equipment, apps, and devices that have been around for a while and are continually improving by adding features like real time voice-to-voice translation. iTranslate Voice is one such app that is handy in social and travel contexts. We have not tested out the use of technologies like this in a research setting, and will not recommend them but are certainly watching for opportunities to experiment with them in the future.

Prepping for User Research

  • Budget more time for these sessions; it simply takes longer since everything you say and everything the participant says will be repeated. We recommend allowing about 50% more time.
  • Don’t assume a question that works with English speakers will make sense in another language. You may have to re-phrase a question, so be ready with alternates.
  • Work with reputable, professional interpreters. This is a specialized skill and good interpreters understand the importance of precise translation (you don’t want “What do you think of that?” to become “do you like that?” or “is that good?”). Remember, interpreters often work in legal or medical contexts, so they understand the importance of word choice. If possible, hire an interpreter who has conducted simultaneous translation in a qualitative research study.
  • Brief the interpreter. Schedule a short call with the interpreter ahead of time to explain what you’ll be doing, the purpose of usability research, and what kind of environment the interviews will take place in (research lab, airport, hospital, etc.)
  • Try to schedule the non-English speaking participants in a row. If you have a mix of English speakers and non-English speakers, you can minimize costs by booking the interpreter for a single block of consecutive non-English sessions.
  • Consider and test your setup. With an extra body (and voice!) in the room, you may need to adjust how the room is laid out. Lebson Tech has good tips on arranging the people and recording devices in research sessions.
woman with video camera records group session of people talking
Photo by Vanilla Bear Films on Unsplash

Conducting User Research with an Interpreter

  • Introduce the user and interpreter. This helps build comfort and trust by immediately engaging both parties.
  • Be patient and persistent. If you’ve never worked with an interpreter before, it may take a few minutes to get into the hang of it. Your instinct may be to speak toward the interpreter, using the third-person to refer to the participant. For example, you may want to say “Ask Linda what she thinks of that.”  Remember the interpreter is simply there for translation. Resist the urge to direct the question to the interpreter; instead make eye contact and direct the questions to the user as you normally would. For example, “Thanks Linda. What do you think of that?”
  • Work in bite-size pieces. You never want to overload a participant with too many questions when you’re conducting user research. But when you’re working with an interpreter, even boiler-plate statements like your opening introductions should be “chunked” to allow for translation. Try to pause after every sentence to let the interpreter translate.
  • This is your chance to learn. Don’t let the added language hurdle impact how many follow up and probing questions you ask. Take your time and make sure you get the input you need.

Wrapping a Research Session

  • Make an effort to learn how to say “thank you” in the participants’ languages so you can thank each user personally during wrap up.

2 Stories from Our Interpretation Sessions

One thing that became clear from our experience was that users not only had differing levels of fluency in English, but also varied levels of comfort with different forms of language. For example, one participant only spoke to us in Spanish, but she often chose to answer our (English) questions before the interpreter translated our words. Her English comprehension was at an intermediate level. However, she either felt more comfortable speaking to us in Spanish or her speaking fluency was less advanced. The important thing is for participants to be at ease, so follow their lead.

Another user’s first language was Polish. Having lived and worked in the US for decades, she spoke English nearly fluently. The prototype she was testing included a messaging feature. Asked about the value of the feature or when she could imagine using it, she said she probably would not use it much at all.

Wanting to understand why, we probed and learned that while she is comfortable speaking in English, she isn’t confident writing in English. She worried that she wouldn’t write clearly and correctly in English. Particularly since she might be messaging her manager, she didn’t the like idea that her writing might have an error or, worse, lead to a misunderstanding. She preferred to communicate verbally. Keep these sorts of nuances in mind when interviewing users and later in the design process.


With Chinese and Spanish being the world’s top two spoken languages and huge growth in mobile users outside of the English-language world, there’s a good chance you could find yourself conducting research with participants across a language barrier. Rather than seeing this as an issue or trying to avoid it by seeking only research participants who speak English, plan for it and embrace the diversity of a global audience. Working with interpreters can be another tool in your toolbox for creating great user experiences. Partner with great simultaneous interpreters to help you conduct inclusive research that results in reliable, diverse input into your design process.

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