Wednesday, March 22, 2006

User experience work offshore/offshoring

While reading through interactions magazine's March+April 2006 special section entitled, "Offshoring Usability," I'm reminded of Fred Sampson's article entitled, "Taking UX Offshore," in the November+December 2005 issue. In that article, Fred describes abit of the early controversy surrounding offshoring (offshore outsourcing), but then states:
"Today, I think of offshoring as a non-issue. There's no point in lobbying against it, in writing letters to Congress or Parliament, much less to business executives. It's a done deal, a fact of life. Deal with it."
At CHI 2005, I moderated a panel entitled, ("Outsourcing and Offshoring: Impact and Consequences for the User Experience." Panelists discussed issues such as the impact of:
  • time, language, and cultural differences;
  • the nature and level of process development;
  • infrastructure (both electronic and physical);
  • location of users relative to offshore teams;
  • level of training and expertise offshore; and
  • characteristics of the work being offshored.
The panel's answer to the controversial question of whether offshoring of user experience work was good or bad pre-echoed Fred's view: don't view offshoring as good or bad; view it as a fact of life you must deal with.

As SIGCHI's Local Chapters Chair for 5 years, I somewhat unknowingly helped make offshoring of user experience work a fact of life, working with people around the world to help them set up and successfully lead and manage regional and national HCI communities. Countries in which I helped establish and grow SIGCHI chapters included India, Russia, Romania, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Poland, Mexico, Czech Republic, Israel, Chile, New Zealand, and Bulgaria, many of which are identified in a January 2006 issue of BusinessWeek as countries competing for offshore outsourcing by U.S. and Western European companies.

For those 5 years, I worked with (prospective) chapter leaders from long range as well as face-to-face, bringing many of these leaders together for annual workshops. I wrote and edited numerous articles to help (prospective) chapter leaders in all locations; articles included:
And I represented the interests of local chapters worldwide as a member of an international SIGCHI Executive Committee.

Now, I'm a member of the Executive Council of the User Experience network (UXnet) which has Local Ambassadors in a rapidly increasing number of countries (25, I believe, as I write this) working to foster the growth of user experience communities and to facilitate networking among them (see UXnet Local Ambassadors: Building a Global Community One Locale at a Time). And I'm presently interacting with people in Asia and elsewhere to make UXnet's Advisory Board international.

I have also led expansion of user experience capability outside of the U.S. within businesses which have employed me, working with and within offices in multiple countries to develop and promote their user experience practice. I have hired, managed, coached, and advised individuals and teams in these offices, and worked to improve working relationships of user experience personnel with others within as well as across geographic boundaries.

I am very proud of all of this work, and I've delighted in getting to know and work with so many people around the world, traveling to Italy, France, Netherlands, India, Australia, Germany, U.K., Austria, and elsewhere to make it happen. Indeed, I hope much more work and travel of a related nature lies ahead for me.

Last November, I visited Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing to learn more about Neema Moraveji's exploration of issues of designing for the Chinese. As I stated in a recent blog entry:
"Great dividends await those companies who put ample resources in understanding the culture and living patterns of emerging markets, and in applying that understanding to identifying new opportunities for design for user experience."
Presently, I'm learning Mandarin via podcasts. I would have benefited from such learning when in Beijing last year, though I was able to get by reasonably well as the use of the English language in China is increasing. However, knowing more Mandarin than I did is important.

Offshore, and the offshoring of, user experience work is a reality that will increasingly affect us all.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Working "middle out"

As asked by the editors of interactions magazine in the March+April 2006 issue, "Is your company guilty of employing a multitude of [user experience] professionals, using them too late in the process, and growing them into tomorrow's janitorial caretakers of the interface?"

Do you happen to be one of those many user experience professionals often (or usually) brought into the process later than would be advisable -- sorta in the middle of things after alot of work has already been done in which you, or other user experience professionals, should have been significantly involved?

If so, try working "middle out."

On my first day as Director of User Research & Experience Strategy at Studio Archetype, I was asked to help a design team test three concepts they had generated for a major new website for Xerox. Yes, designers had generated the concepts -- a very good thing. But, no user research of any value had been done to guide concept design.

I suppose I could have told them, "Sorry, let's start over, do some decent user research, and then design the concepts." Indeed, a part of my role in the company was to introduce and integrate user research in the right way into the process. But neither the team nor the client would have been happy with that kind of response.

So instead, I designed a concept test that included some of the research that should have been done earlier. I called this approach, "starting in the middle and working backward and forward simultaneously." The concept test moved the process forward from where it was, while also working backward to do work that should have been done previously. And by involving the designers in the research in significant ways, the team came to realize that the user research could have been done earlier, a realization which helped move the quality of the concept design process forward for future projects.

In previous blog entries, I've referred to similar stories of working "middle out" in other workplaces. In some of those cases, the product concepts were not generated by designers, and I refered to whomever owned those important decisions about product concepts (or strategies or designs or...) -- decisions that user experience personnel should own or should influence more substantially -- as the people "in power" with whom it was essential to partner:
"involving those with power in an intensive process of rapid ethnographic research and its analysis/synthesis in certain cases, and in an intensive process of rapid iterative design and evaluation in others, was key. And they were involved in such a way as to enable ... them to directly experience how important user experience should be to shaping those decisions. The ultimate result was an elevation of user experience personnel into a relationship of strategic partnership."
At DUX 2005, Audrey Crane of Dubberly Design Office (DDO) told a very different -- yet very similar -- story entitled, "Middle-Out Design" in which those in power were physicians, engineers, and a product manager who were developing a complex product that enables physicians to enter orders on a handheld device.
"The client came to us in the middle of the project having already invested a year in design, content development, and engineering. The client was understandably looking to move forward -- they were not interested in starting over or even in a lengthy reassessment. The client (a self funded start-up) wanted to move forward as quickly as possible. ... [They] did not feel that they had time for extensive research and product concepting... [though they] had only began to consider how to organize screens and content.

...What we needed was a kind of 'middle-out' approach that would both address details quickly and address larger conceptual questions—so that the detailed work sprang from a logical foundation and resulted in a cohesive product. And the approach had to be something that our client was comfortable with, not a heavyweight or complicated process that would take time to explain and get accepted.

We decided to borrow from our experience in the quality assurance (QA) cycle of software development. Specifically, we introduced the bug tracking process, re-cast to address design issues or 'design bugs'."
Audrey's case study describes how careful assignment of priorities to design issues enabled them "to visibly focus [their] limited time on the most important problems" while "setting aside tangential issues gracefully."
"In the beginning of the project, we were concerned about jumping into the middle of a work-in-progress without taking the time to work out a product concept with the client. In the end, DDO found that some issues simply couldn’t be resolved without modeling the product concept. We reached that conclusion with the client, from the perspective of trying to resolve a specific issue. As a result, we never had to 'sell' modeling the product concept. The [client] team saw the need for themselves."
One final paragraph from Audrey's case study:
"In the final analysis, nearly all of the projects we work on are 'Middle-out' design problems -- it is unfortunately very rare to have an opportunity to start design during the product concepting stage. [This project] was so clearly starting in the middle of the software development process that we had the perspective to tackle it in a unique way. It never occurred to us to try to wrestle a 'perfect' process into an imperfect situation."
However, for future projects with the same client, or in those companies that employ a multitude of user experience professionals, it is hopeful that working "middle out" -- however it is accomplished -- will only need to be used as an approach to help transition an imperfect situation into one in which user experience personnel get involved much earlier than the middle.

More on "starting in the middle and working backward and forward simultaneously" appears in a chapter I co-authored entitled, "Strategies to Make E-Business More Customer-Centred." (Appears in "The Usability Business: Making the Web Work," Springer-Verlag London Ltd, November 2001.)

And according to the DUX 2005 blog, Audrey Crane's DUX 2005 case study will soon be appearing, along with all of the other DUX 2005 case studies, on the AIGA website.