Offshoring usability

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 12
Digital Citation

Offshore usability

Eric Schaffer

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Usability has become mainstream, and we are undergoing a radical transformation in how we perform usability work. We are shifting from usability as ad hoc craftsmanship to usability as a mature, efficient, and reliable process. This is very much the same as the way IT shifted from an activity done "in the garage" to the massive operations we see today. Refined methodologies, tools, templates, standards, training, and certification will inevitably result in reduced costs and improved quality. This process-driven approach has also allowed much IT work to be done offshore. Maybe we should take that as a hint.

I want to make a distinction between offshore usability and how to do cross-cultural design. As I write this, my company is working on software for France, Germany, Africa, Singapore, China, Columbia, Qatar, as well as the usual suspects like Cleveland. There are plenty of publications about internationalization and localization issues, and we will not address this here. Instead, we will address a very different question: Is it possible to effectively perform usability with some or all of the work outsourced to an offshore group? Since I have 140 people doing usability work offshore in India right now, I am of the opinion that it can work. I would even say that this is going to be the best practice in the future. But not everyone will agree.

It is time to think about how we will scale up usability. Some people may advocate questionable ideas for reaching this goal, such as spreading the load to have everyone work on usability. Such a proposition is like giving everyone a brief course in architecture, mechanical engineering, or brain surgery. Usability is a complex field requiring professionals who are fully trained and focused on that work. I also believe that the ultra-discount methods will eventually translate to ultra-poor usability.

I think part of the answer to the demand for skilled usability staff will come from integration of offshore resources; this is the only way we are likely to find and afford the staff needed. Usability is worthwhile, for sure. But without enough people, this whole effort will fall flat. Every time someone ill-equipped to perform usability work makes a mess, we all look bad. Every time an executive wants to implement usability in an organization but can't find the staff, the promise of usability engineering rings hollow.

But offshore usability is not a trivial endeavor. In this issue we explore the diversity of experiences when usability work is done from offshore. Diversity is there. I've sat disconsolate as a monsoon wiped out power, Internet, and phone just when a deliverable was due. But I can also guarantee that seasoned Indian staff, working from redundant and hardened facilities, with sophisticated methods, facilities, and training, can produce designs to impress even the most self-satisfied practitioners.

You can judge if offshoring will be an important resource. You might even decide to be one of the people to help build the bridges that make this solution work.

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Eric M. Schaffer
Human Factors International

About the Author:

Eric M. Schaffer, PhD CUA CPE, is the global CEO of Human Factors International ( (HFI). He has 30 years' experience in software usability and 25 years at the helm of HFI. Schaffer has been working on offshore usability since 1999 and currently lives in Mumbai, India. He grows HFI, consults on projects, teaches, and presents. In 2004 he wrote Institutionalization of Usability: a Step-By-Step Guide (Addison-Wesley).

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