Prevalence and state of user research
The marketing industry is mature and sophisticated in the UAE, albeit traditional in some parts, and finding agencies to help with this kind of effort is easy. However, ‘product testing’ in the context of usability testing is still uncommon, although awareness of the need for this kind of research is on the increase.
Generally speaking, the sense of time and timekeeping is very different from that in the West. People here are more relaxed about time, and you would be advised to be flexible in your scheduling of testing sessions, allowing for a little extra time between sessions.
Language and translation considerations
English is commonly spoken, especially within the professional community. However, using a translator during a study would be advisable, especially for accessing nuance in users’ experience.
Travel and transportation
Travel within this country
With public transport very much underdeveloped, traffic jams are very common, especially in Dubai, and taxis can be very difficult to find during rush hour. However, the metro promises to alleviate these conditions, when completed.
The UAE is also a very multinational, multicultural and multiethnic country, and there is a very wide and extreme socioeconomic spectrum. In many respects, it is similar to New York City, but with a total population of about 4.5 million. A third of the population are Arabs, about half are from South Asia & the Asian sub-continent. The rest are a mixture of Western and other nationals.
There are seven Emirates (states), and they are all very different from each other. Although Abu Dhabi is the main and ruling state, Dubai is the most densely populate and has the most diverse cosmopolitan and cultural landscape, while Sharjah remains the most conservative. The other states, Ajman, Fujaira, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain are the least populated and least affluent.
With regards to the Arabic culture itself, this is also very diverse. There are of course the indigenous Emiratis, who are now a minority in terms of numbers amongst the other Arab population. The Arabic culture spans from Morocco and Mauritania to Iraq and the UAE. With classical Arabic being the common language, they all have their own local dialect. There are essentially four groups of dialects and cultures; Eastern Middle East, Western Middle East, East African and West African. The UAE belongs to the Eastern Middle East group, and it would be prudent for anyone intending to run tests in the UAE to make sure that they have considered which group needs to be involved in the testing.
Middle Eastern society, in general, is a formal and hierarchical society; courtesy is visible and explicit. At times though, this may be in stark contrast to the commonly seen banter and heated discussions between locals. This is OK and not a cause for concern.
In terms of cultural understanding, it is particularly important to be aware of issues surrounding working with female participants. There are extremes regarding this aspect.
Some parts of the UAE society have strict gender segregation where it is absolutely forbidden for non-married or non-related couples to be together in seclusion. Other parts of the same society, however, can be very liberal. Also, some women may prefer not to shake hands (or any physical contact) with non-related males. So, to avoid any embarrassment, don’t offer to shake hands.
Permission to video female participants will probably not be granted so it is best to avoid such a requirement.
Holiday, seasonality, and timing considerations
The Holy month of Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar, and therefore shifts by about eleven days every year relative to the western Gregorian calendar. The majority of the Muslim population fasts during the daylight hours of this month (no food and no water). This activity manifests in a general ‘go slow’ during the month. Ramadan is followed by a 3-day Eid (feast), and then a few weeks later, a 4-day Eid that is linked to the pilgrimage to Mecca. So, find out when Ramadan falls in the year you want to perform your tests and, unless you really need to, it would be advisable to avoid this period.
Regarding working hours, people generally have an early start, some start at 7am, and finish at 2pm and some work two shifts, finishing late at night. So, depending on the kind profession of the participants required, this may force a particular time for the testing sessions. In terms of finding participants during the weekend (Friday & Saturday), this can prove to be problematic, especially on Friday. Also, whatever you do, avoid scheduling anything for Friday during lunch time, when the weekly community prayers are held in the mosques.
Prayer times occur five times a day, and a large part of the Muslim population like to keep to the prescribed times. Asking ahead of time if the participant wishes to pray at a particular time would be courteous, and may reduce any anxiety.