Ethnographic research and cross-cultural UX in Southern Italy
Uncovering opportunities for digital innovation through field research
I cannot think of anything more exciting for a researcher than the moment you finally leave the lab and bring your research skills to the field. UX researchers these days deal heavily with software and digital product testing, but there is only so much you can learn about your users in an artificial lab setting. Some of us are lucky enough to work in an industry — e.g. the travel and mobility industry — in which much of the experience provided to the users actually happens offline. Doing research for FlixBus (now FlixMobility), with its iconic long-distance green buses, means the user journey spans from the moment someone decides to search for a ticket to the very end of their trip. First launched in Germany, FlixMobility now offers a quickly expanding network of long-distance buses and trains (!!) in Europe and the US, with expansion plans for South America and Asia. From a UX perspective, this means having to deal with a very diverse user base: different languages, travel habits, cultures, country regulations and user needs. It is not surprising that when launching an existing service to a brand new market, problems and challenges arise for unforeseen reasons.
In summer 2019, I had the chance to plan and execute field research in one of FlixMobility’s newest markets, Southern Italy, to investigate customer behaviour in a prevalently offline-driven market, in order to identify opportunities for our digital products and services to better meet the needs of the locals.
№I. Requirements Gathering and Problem Definition
Italy is one of Flix’s core markets, after launching its first bus back in 2015 in the northern part of the country. It is not until 2018, though, that the service expanded to reach the most southern regions of Sicily, Calabria and Apulia.
When this project first came to life, I did not know what I was going to conduct research on, nor what methodology I was going to use. I had gotten in touch with the operations team in our office branch in Milan, introducing myself and my role within the company for the first time, and offered my help with whatever problem they might have been facing that was worth investigating, as an Italian native in the UX research team. It did not come as a surprise to me that their concerns were focused on the new expansion in Southern Italy. Ask anyone who has basic knowledge of Italy and they will likely tell you how different the “north” and the “south” are: historically, “Italy” as a unified nation has only been a thing for a century and a half, leading to a very diverse range of cultures, norms and behaviours cohexisting in the peninsula. As it turns out, data our operations team had collected about our customers showed clearly different behaviour in regards to brand perception, sales, and usage of our products in the newest Southern Italian market compared to the rest of the country — the reason behind these differences, and how to possibly address them, was something that data alone could not explain. This is a UX problem, I thought.
№2. Research Methodology
The goal of the project was to investigate offline customer behaviour, particularly at the moment of booking at a ticket agency and while waiting for a bus at the station. The hypotheses we formulated with the stakeholders were that:
H1. there may be a resistance to using our digital services due to the customer base being older and less tech-savvy
H2. customers may have issues accepting some of our “new” services due to being used to travelling with traditional carriers (some of which are now part of Flix).
Going to see what’s going on directly on the field was easily the best way to address these: with me based in Berlin and the main stakeholders in Milan, we were both too far away from the actual customers to get the full picture of this new market. I wanted to provide a “quick” ethnographic account of the Southern Italian market, with the aid of contextual inquiry at three stages of the user journey: buying a ticket, waiting for the bus, and during the trip itself. More importantly, I had one of the stakeholders join me to get a first-hand experience observing and talking to the customers in Southern Italy.
Ethnography define the study of a group of people in their natural environment by means of active participation. It involves spending a large amount of time — usually several months — living near these people and collecting artifacts in order to understand their customs and (micro) culture. The questions I had were on the lines of “How are people used to travel?”, “What’s their relationship with technology?” and, more in general, “What do these people need and value?”. It is something that I could not possibly have conducted in two weeks — luckily for me, I had already spent nearly 20 years in Calabria, where I was born and raised.
2. Contextual Inquiry
As the name suggests, contextual inquiry is a research method that consists in direct observation of users in their context of use. In my case, it meant observing and interviewing people as they were buying a ticket, waiting for their bus, or riding the bus. Over the course of two weeks, I have travelled between Villa San Giovanni (in Calabria), Catania and Messina (in Sicily), using a combination of FlixBus and local bus operators, sitting at ticket agencies to observe what kind of questions people would ask, and interviewing both customers and bus partners.
№3. Understanding the context
Compared to Northern Italy, regions like Sicily and Calabria had a history of family owned private long-distance bus carriers on the market long before FlixBus was launched. On top of that, there is an on-going economic exodus towards the most industrialised north that affects people aged 18–35, and a considerably large part of the local population aged over 60. On one hand, long-distance buses are one of the main travel options in southern italy, on the other hand, innovation and new technologies are often met with a lukewarm reception, possibly due to tradition and an aging population.
When I try to explain cultural differences in the context of UX, I always cite two modern anthropologists and cross-cultural researchers: Edward T. Hall, who explored people’s communication styles and perception of time and space; and Geert Hofstede, who analysed how culture affects what people value. The cultural dimensions proposed by these men are hard to apply on an individiual level these days and may appear “steoreotypical” due to globalization, but they are still extremely useful to understand how societies differ from each other. In an UX context, it’s especially interesting to look at how telecommunication is affected: Italians’ polychronic time perception and high-context, formal communication style affect pretty much any type of user experience. Take WhatsApp: in Italy, sending a voice message is very common, as listening to them in public spaces (without earphones) is considered socially acceptable. Calling someone on the phone is sometimes perceived as more effective than sending an email or text, especially if dealing with customer service, and face-to-face interaction may be preferred when dealing with important matter. While this communication style applies to the whole country, there is a major difference that distinguishes the South from the North: Hofstede describes Northern Italy as an Individualistic culture, where people speak in terms of “I” rather than “we” and value pursuing their own personal ideas and objectives, only focusing on themselves and their close family members. In the South, this is reversed: individuals belong to clusters defining their own social life, families are “larger” (i.e. one’s perception of family includes distant relatives), with stress on the importance of ceremonies such as family lunches, weddings, and so on. People tend to talk about themselves in terms of “we” rather than “I”: whether as member of a family, a group of friends, schoolmates, people living in the same city or region, everyone belongs to a cluster. Because of this, there is a perception of southern italian being “warmer”, more helpful and welcoming, whereas northern italians are “colder”, and more self-centred. Birthdays are a perfect example of this: in the north, birthday celebrations are usually rather intimate and involve a small group of people going out for dinner (each at their own expenses), with the guests bringing cake for the birthday boy / girl; in the south, on the other hand, the person hosting a birthday party is supposed to provide food and drinks for all the guests — usually a large number of family members and friends — who in return will each bring them a gift. The exchange of gifts is as a way to establish social relationship is particularly important in collectivistic cultures, and it has been suggested that modern online communication (with the exchange of texts, photos, voice messages, likes, gifs and memes) is actually an evolution of ancient ritual gift-exchanging. In China, friends often send each other small amounts of money in order to show appreciation for each other or lift someone’s mood, and this is reflected in Chinese UX with popular messaging app WeChat allowing people to send “red envelopes” to each other via text. In Southern Italy, people exchange gifts in the form of food and coffee, by greeting each other and celebrating events like someone’s “name day”, even if just by sending them their wishes via WhatsApp. All of this information may seem unrelated to bus travel — but it actually helped me understand certain behaviour that I observed travelling with FlixBus across the country, and why did I have such differing experiences.
The main thing we noticed travelling via FlixBus in both Calabria and Sicily is that many of the buses still look like what they used to before joining FlixBus, that is, not green. This makes me wonder if people (especially older people) still think of the previous operator when travelling on a FlixBus, and the repercussions this may have on brand recognition. That said, I did not notice a whole lot of older customers travelling on the bus, although it may be due to summer being a high-tourism season. The ticket agency owner we interviewed in Catania, who also used to be a bus driver, confirmed that the majority of customers are actually younger people commuting (e.g. from Sicily to larger cities in the North where they study or work), visiting friends and family, and tourists. This immediately rang a bell that H1 may not hold true. But why were so many people, of any age, still flooding the ticket stores rather than relying on our website and app? We quickly learned that customers liked to do their own benchmarking, visiting different stores and comparing different carriers, not only in terms of cost but also facilities, number of stops, and in general because they wanted to talk to someone face to face in order to ask any questions they may cross their minds. Surprisingly, some customers even look up the website to search for their trip first, and then head to the agency the day after in order to ask questions and buy the ticket in person. Our main competitor’s buses have phone numbers written on them, and a phone number is the first thing you see when you visit their website. It seems that even “tech-savvy” customers may prefer to rely on a more off-line approach when it comes to booking. A reason behind this seemed to be a certain degree of mistrust towards online payments, with many customers preferring to pay in cash and some not even owning a credit card. When I learned that the receptionist at our hotel, a guy in his mid thirties, was looking for a coach to travel to Trieste, I had him book a ticket through the FlixBus website for the first time. The reason he was hopping on a 32-hour bus journey? He needed to buy a car, and wanted to be there to pay in person. Overall, we painted a picture of Southern Italian bus travellers that is different from what we had hypothesised, but we also met a lot of people who reflected our target customer base of young adults who are “smart” and tech-savvy. When we interviewed travellers, their opinion of FlixBus was generally positive as they thought of us as more modern and up-to-date with the times compared to other local brands. Perhaps the other hypothesis we had, H2, was also wrong — the data we collected about our customer was due to something else, possibly a brand recognition issue. But how was the travel experience itself?
I have travelled with FlixBus occasionally in Germany, Poland, and Northern Italy (between Milan, Genoa and Aosta), and the experience has always been pretty much the same: you place your luggage on the bus, show your ticket to the driver, go find your seat and hope the wi-fi works. Travelling between Calabria and Sicily, I had a slightly better experience: on each bus I have been there were two drivers, one actually driving and another taking care of the passengers. They took everyone’s name and destination when checking in, in order to position our luggage based on where they were going and making sure that everyone was there. I also noticed driver paying special attention to customers in need: talking to an older lady to make sure that her nephew would come to pick her up, and warning her not to drive on the highway because of the traffic once at her destination; on one of my trips I ended up travelling together with a visually impaired couple, their kid and assistance dog, with the bus driver buying them breakfast and playing with their kid. This special attention to the customer from the driver’s side may have its cons, too. According to the bus partner we interviewed, drivers may not always trust FlixBus in terms of customer service and would rather wait for a passenger that is late than leave without them, causing delays. And from a customer perspective, finding the bus may not always be easy, especially at certain bus stops in smaller cities that have no clear signs and direction, or because of the bus driver sometimes changing the stop location in order to avoid traffic.
We arranged a small customer grouping workshop in order to analyse the findings and come up with an action plan following the research. We used some of the Lean Service Creation canvases to break down our observed customer groups into “not tech-savvy”, “tech-savvy”, and“tech-savvy but offline” (i.e. those that could use our digital services, but don’t). We identified this latter as the group it was worth focusing our efforts on, and started listing all the observed problems they were facing that they were addressing offline, and started brainstorming potential solutions for each of these. The renewed goal was not to teach older customers how to use our website and app, but rather how to enable customer who already uses our website and app to find the information that they need which they would normally ask to someone at the ticket store or via phone, and to find new ways to incentivate FlixBus customers to use our digital services and for us to offer the best possible booking and travel experience to this new market.
Ethnographic studies and field research are often considered to be “academic” practices, too systematic and time-consuming for the world of industry. But even short, AGILE-friendly expeditions outside of the lab can bring invaluable insights that go beyond usability: contextual inquiry is where all the strenghts and weaknesses of a product / service can be truly experienced from a customer’s point of view. It may help shed a light on the reasons behind those survey responses, NPS scores or odd sale numbers, while also uncovering unforeseen issues and opportunities for innovation, from branding to marketing to user experience — field research always involve many different stakeholders, and having them tag along can both open their eyes and make your life easier. This type of research is especially crucial when expanding to a new market, which does not necessary mean a new country. If there is one lesson we have learnt is that your ideas and expectations about customers are rarely accurate — until you actually talk to them. Research, for how “quick and dirty” it can be in the tech industry, will always help you ditch your misconceptions and adjust your focus, so that you put effort into what really matters: solving the real problems, for the right people.