How We Conducted User Research at the UAE Market

Designing a good product for a new market has never been easy. In order to know what to design (or what to change on the existing design) requires knowing the target audience. In this blog post,  we will share our experience during one of our international design and research projects in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Project details

UX studio researchers and designers were working on a new mobile app targeted at the UAE market. This market had been quite unknown to us before, being a European UX agency, mostly doing client works for Western Europe and US companies.

Working in a bigger design team

Our design team was part of a larger product team. It was already an exciting experience because we had to learn how to work with a large number of people while adapting to a new cultural and business environment. We had a tight schedule as well; we had to learn about the UAE market, the culture and our users very quickly.

Scaling the product

Although we targeted the app for the UAE market, the long-term strategy included expansion to other Arab countries. It had to serve the local habits and user behavior, but it also had to be “exportable” at the same time. So we had to pay close attention to how to scale efficiently. To this end, we not only had to gather as many insights as possible but also prioritize features with the long-term strategy in mind.

Working remotely

And last but not least, sometimes we had to do all this remotely. We needed to cooperate with several remote teams. This made our communication process harder, so we had to make sure we worked as closely as possible. 

This project was a very exciting challenge both professionally and personally, so we would like to share the experiences gained during the design process, and also give a few tips and tricks on how to conduct usability research.

Designing for a different culture

Before we get deeper into the culture-specific traits of UAE users, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. A mistaken product or even marketing strategy can cost millions of dollars for product owners if they don’t do their homework of researching their target market.

As Telenor VP of Product Lisa Long said:

“You need to understand the basic assumptions about your product in your home market first, so that you know what must be changed to make it work in a new environment.”

In our case, it was a double challenge: we didn’t have an existing product yet but we already had to plan with the extension. As the first step, we had to answer this question: What problems do we want to solve with our product in the UAE first? We needed to understand fundamental social conventions and learn about the culture by talking to our users.

Getting to know the UAE market

Although there is a standard Arabic language, Arab culture can not be generalized. Every Arab country is different, with its own cultural heritage and dialect. Designing for a certain Arab market requires knowledge of the local specifications, habits and differences, which in turn requires advanced UX research.

Here are some tips on how to start:

  • Get the big picture

Start with some general data first to get an overview of the target country. Any larger statistical site is a good source to gather the most important facts: CIA World Fact Book, Statista, or the country’s embassy website are all great help. Of course, raw data will not show the essence of the whole culture, more qualitative data will. Supplement statistics by doing preliminary interviews with local experts who have relevant experience and expertise in the product’s field. These insights combined with quantitative data will provide a good starting point to make a more detailed research plan later.

  • Act like a local

To get a little closer to users, it helps to “blend in”. Do not only find out about their habits, but actually try them: use the apps and channels they use, visit the sites they read, go to places they go, etc. This provides real-life experience to go with the textbook knowledge, which leads to better understanding the audience and their needs.

  • Talk to the users

Product testing forms an essential element of the development process because it helps collect valuable feedback from real users. It is especially necessary for working on a brand-new product in an unfamiliar market.

Conducting usability research in a different culture can be an exciting experience as well. We’ll see how we did it, but first, let’s take a look at the specifications of Arabic user interfaces!

Arabic user interfaces

Knowing that the product targeted both the UAE and international markets, we had to plan with two design versions: an English and an Arabic one. Of course, the latter part was the harder for us, Europeans, so we designed the English version first and adapted it to the Arabic UI by mirroring the design right-to-left (RTL). But when you’re designing specifically for Arab users, it’s not enough to just mirror the design. There are some local specific usability considerations to apply.

Here are a few good examples from UXbert:

  • Language:
    • Use the right dialect in your translation; all Arab countries use different ones.
    • Use “Modern Standard Arabic” (fusha) when targeting multiple Arab countries.
    • Keep it consistent. Some research shows that Arabic users can switch between Arabic and English interfaces easily, but it’s important to keep the design consistent. Once it’s translated, make it as complete as possible.
  • Copy and type:
    • Use screen real estate smartly: Arabic is a “wordier” language; therefore, it might take up more space. Keep this in mind when designing layout and UI element pixel size
    • Pay attention to legibility: Arabic characters are very complex; they have overhanging and looping features. The type needs to be at least four points larger than the corresponding English type in order to achieve the same degree of legibility. Avoid bold and italics for the same reason.
Arabic copy might take up more screen real estate. Notice the differences in copy length on the different buttons.
  • Reading pattern:
    • Mirrored F-shape: Arabic-speaking users mirror the F-shaped reading behavior, so put the most relevant information on top, like many left-to-right (LTR) sites do.
  • Mirroring icons:  Even in RTL websites, certain icons and logos should retain their LTR alignment, such as:
    • Icons that indicate direction: eg. play or rewind buttons on media players, progress indicators, and a clock’s hands should always rotate clockwise too;
    • Icons that represent objects usually held with the right hand (eg. phone icon);
    • Any words written in other languages and Hindu-Arabic numerals (1,2,3, etc);
    • Icons with user expectations: consider whether there is a user expectation for the icon to look a certain way. Also, think about whether changing the icon’s alignment would change its meaning.
  • Images: make sure you use images that are culturally appropriate for your target users
Mirroring LTR design to Arabic RTL interface in iOS 9. Notice that not all icons were mirrored (e.g phone, camera, chat bubble).
Alignment done right. Notice that only the location of the icons is reversed, the alignment remains the same, adapting to user expectations.

Usability testing in the UAE

Nothing can replace the insights from testing the product on real users. During the three-month project, we conducted an extensive round of 53 user tests combined with 30-minute interviews.

The general guidelines of how to conduct usability studies don’t really change in another cultural environment, but there might be some specific things to keep in mind to get valid information from the users. Let’s see some examples.

Be aware of the sample

When recruiting test participants, always keep the target group in mind.

Our app targeted quite a wide audience, so we needed to consider the cultural diversity of the UAE, especially Dubai. The population of this metropolis of more than two million is composed of just 15% native residents, with the remaining 85% expats. About 85% of the expat population is Asian, primarily from India (51%), Pakistan (17%), Bangladesh (9%) and the Philippines(3%). The city also has a high number of Western expats. We had to make sure our sample included all these user groups.

When designing for international markets, having a more international sample often reveals problems that could well exist for domestic users, too. We have found that there were no particular differences between cultures when it comes to main usability issues such as navigation. This resonates with this finding by Jacob Nielsen:

“People are the same the world over, and all the main usability guidelines remain the same. After all, usability guidelines are derived from the principles of human–computer interaction (HCI), which are founded on the characteristics of computers and the human brain and the many ways the two differ.”

UAE is a highly diverse society. Make sure the sample represents the target group well.

Recruitment abroad

So there you are in a foreign country asking yourself: Okay, but how do I get users for testing? Of course, a local agency can do the recruitment, budget allowing. But since you best know your product and business goals, it’s better to do it yourself. Even without a big budget, there are also cost-efficient sources:

  • Public Facebook groups: Post ads here with a catchy message and a short summary of the research details (who you are, what you’re looking for, how long it will take, where etc.) Always create a screener questionnaire as well to ensure applicants from the target group
  • LinkedIn: This source worked especially well for us. Users contacted via LinkedIn had a higher response rate and greater willingness to participate in the tests
  • Ask for recommendations (snowball method): Ask colleagues from the local office (if there is one) to recommend acquaintances or friends. Similarly, always ask test participants for recommendations, too. Be careful with this technique; do not select overly similar users as it leads to an unrepresentative sample in the end.
  • Be creative: Lacking time to test or requiring quick feedback (like about a button copy), do guerilla testing (e.g. on the plane while traveling).

Another thing to consider is the amount and form of the incentive. The reward given to users can depend on the length of the test, the task types, the users, budget and many other things. Try to consider local prices and approximate the hourly wages of the participants. In the UAE, and especially in Dubai, designate a bigger budget for incentives.

Also, keep in mind that not all participants are comfortable with being recorded. Obtain consent beforehand as well as knowledge of local legislation on personal data protection.  

Respect the culture

It might seem like a small thing, but be very aware of the local etiquette. Even though Dubai is very open to other cultures, it requires adherence to some social rules. This becomes especially true testing participants who hold more traditional attitudes and values. Moderators of the same gender as the participant make them feel more comfortable. Some men don’t shake hands with women, either.

Learn at least some local expressions (hello, goodbye, thank you). It reduces the initial tension and provides an opportunity to bond.

Respect local culture. Consider moderators of the same gender as the participant.

What we have learned

Trusting big brands and authorities

According to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, UAE society retains a great power distance, which means that people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification.

In our research, this manifested in a greater trust towards governmental entities and big international brands. In the design, we had to adjust to this cultural trait by indicating signs of good international reputation, expertise and authority (such as certification logos as a sign of reliability, etc.) Cultures with a great power distance are also used for solid structures. They need clear statements and well-structured information. We had this in mind in our design, minimizing texts and maintaining a rather masculine tone of voice.

Emirates have greater trust towards governmental and big international brands.

Avoiding uncertainty

UAE’s society has a high preference for avoiding uncertainty. Countries with this trait prefer the familiar over the unfamiliar, and security is an important element in their individual motivations. This became especially important when we designed mobile payment processes. We had to build users’ trust in an unknown brand. We had to provide more information about security settings and data protection and specifically how the app worked.

With this in mind, we presented as much relevant information as possible in a structured and clear way. We also learned it was particularly hard for an unknown brand to introduce mobile payment without a good reputation or support from the government or big banks.

Communication and sharing habits

It might be surprising, but the UAE holds the top position in internet penetration in the world! People here are online 24/7 and they use all the common social media platforms on their mobiles (mostly WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook), although in a slightly different way.

Rely on other’s opinions

The UAE is considered to be a collectivistic society. This manifests in a close long-term commitment to member groups such as family, extended family, or extended relationships. Indeed, people there keep in daily contact with their relatives and friends via social media. They also make decisions typically based on the opinion of others and on what’s common or popular, not so much on their individual desires. They like to have their friends’ recommendations, and rely on instant feedback from their reference groups.

Privacy is key

Even if they like to share important moments with friends and family, they don’t like to share their daily lives with strangers or with the whole world on the internet. They highly value privacy and platforms with strong authentication systems where they know exactly whom they are talking to. Since the national telecommunication companies authenticate all phone numbers, they trust social platforms with phone number registration very much.

They also value settings where they can personalize their visibility and sharing options. Especially women with more traditional values sometimes hide behind fake profiles on women’s forums to discuss sensitive topics. Features such as the 24-hour limit on Snapchat content is also very popular among younger generations.

UAE users are online 24/7 but they keep their selfies to themselves.

Arabic UX: Differences in the details

After three months of research, we could get much deeper insights into the Emirates and the Arab market. The usability tests highlighted that indeed the main usability guidelines remain the same across different cultures, such as navigation patterns. The small details that make up the local differences matter more. Emiratis prefer more private and controllable mobile apps. They don’t share their daily lives on Facebook, only with their closest friends. They also trust governmental and bigger brands more.

The insights of the user tests and interviews proved the importance of knowing the market and the audience’s needs and pain points to be able to design a good product for them.


To summarize how to conduct usability research in a different market, here are some takeaways:

  • Get the big picture. Start with some stats first and talk to experts
  • Act like a local. “Mimic” local user behavior to better understand the culture
  • Talk to the users:
    • Collect sample that represents the target audience
    • Consider local legislation while recruiting (eg. data protection)
    • Hire a local agency or use free sources for recruitment
    • Consider local specifications and language in the design
    • Be aware of local etiquette during the tests

Have any experience in cross-cultural UX and research? We would love to hear about it in the comments below!

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Tímea Falmann

UX researcher, half economist - half sociologist.
Love to turn insights into products.
Reckless word-player, unstoppable globetrotter, hobby dancer.

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