International research about local visual cultures

We’ve worked with a global client who wanted to improve the photography in their app for wider international use. They wanted their images to be more representative of how people see themselves and more sensitive to cultural nuances. 

Visual expert panels across borders

For this research, STBY looked into 10 very different countries in terms of their visual cultures: Japan, India, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. When doing research across borders we partner with local experts from the Reach Network, which we co-founded 15 years ago. The network gives us access to local design research teams who are equal partners on projects when we collaborate. 

This collaborative process gives power in the process to people with the right type of expertise. Research teams we partner with bring a local and cultural perspective of their own, making the planning and doing of research relevant to their country. And they find participants most relevant to the project. In this case participants were all local experts in visual culture: photographers, designers, academics and much more. 

Our client needed expert advice, so we did this research with a panel of visual culture experts in each country. These participants had the language, skills and expertise to provide advice about visual cultures where they live and work. In this way it was an atypical research project, participants didn’t need any connection to the service. But they had all spent years immersing themselves in visual practices: photography, exhibition curation, commercial advertising, life-style magazine or other types of visual communication from both commercial and academic perspectives. They gave us an expert perspective of a visual language and a bird’s eye view of what has worked in their experience. 

Planning co-creative activities with experts

Our workshops were fully online in all countries, during the COVID-19 pandemic. This made it easy for people to contribute from wherever they were. And for participants less confident doing things online we gave them one-to-one help before and during the workshop to ensure they were able to fully participate.

Participants were given homework to find relevant photography to use as examples in the sessions. This meant that people came to the workshops buzzing with thoughts and ideas.

Any exploration of visual culture for a whole country is incredibly broad. We knew there would be lots to learn and no way of nearly covering everything. So we set up the homework and workshop with two different angles to the joint conversation:

1. Tell us about visual culture in your country generally as though we know nothing, educate us, including dos and don’ts

2. Tell us about how visual culture applies to our client’s service and the wider sector it’s in, give us lots of examples you think the client could use

Collaboration towards joint recommendations

Together with the local researchers, we ran joint research sessions to share and discuss visual culture references. As a group the participants recommended a visual language for their local culture which is relevant to our client.

In the workshop we made sure to:

  • Be transparent – the process and objectives of the research were made transparent to participants. They could clearly see what their contribution means and where they have power to change things for the better.
  • Be visual – since we were discussing visual cultures, we did not only want to use words. So an important part of the conversations we had was done through mapping images the participants and client brought to the session. This helped us use a very visual way of communicating in our reports.
  • Welcome disagreements – participants were picked for their different backgrounds and we wanted these different perspectives to come to the fore. We made sure each participant had time to make their case and respond to others in each section.
  • Attempt to find a consensus – despite lots of different views and welcoming disagreements we tried to get some consensus across the panel of experts. Each participant had subtly different expertise from the next so finding things they all agreed on was a helpful way of getting to strong, uncontroversial findings that moved beyond individual opinions. 
  • Embrace local experiences – the workshop centred on photography that felt locally relevant to participants. Welcoming and embracing their local experiences helped create a more authentic way of expressing who they are as a nation. And avoided slipping into a foreign, Western or outsider way of looking at a country’s visual culture. 

Ensuring the local flavour shines through

We worked hard to respect individual differences in each country to ensure the local flavour could shine through. But we also made sure there was some uniformity around language, level of finding and type of recommendation. Having some high level uniformity made it easier for the client team to work with.

As well as a detailed report, the researchers in each country made a two minute video presentation of highlights from their research. This made a teaser to a full report. Video snippets are a great way for the most important findings to travel far and wide in our client’s organisation. And for those who find it relevant it’s a great intro to the report.

Video snippets are a great way for findings to travel far and wide in a client organisation