Offshoring usability

XIII.2 March + April 2006
Page: 29
Digital Citation

The moment of truth

Lada Gorlenko

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The Big Question. Whether we like it or not, offshoring is here to stay. "If" or "when" to offshore is no longer an issue. The heart of the discussion is "how much"-how much we can afford to offshore or, more precisely, how much we can afford to keep. The User Experience (UX) profession has gone a long way in making the distinction between software design and UX design known. Will we be able to hold on to that distinction when it comes to offshoring?

What, if anything, makes experience design unwise, uneasy, or unrealistic to offshore?

I often hear from fellow practitioners that UX design cannot be done from abroad. Different reasons are given, such as better understanding of one's local businesses and users; proximity to them during research, design and testing; shared language; and lack of design expertise offshore. On the whole, most come to the same conclusion: "Outsiders cannot design for our users."

Some of the claims above cannot stand serious criticism. For instance, remote testing is now a common practice. It is also difficult to see why the number of UX professionals cannot grow abroad as fast as the number of software engineers has. What is hard to contest is that UX design reaches its full potential when designers and their users have shared culture. A rather elusive phenomenon, culture seems to be our strongest defense when it comes to letting UX go elsewhere.

The Software of the Mind. What is culture?

According to Geert Hofstede—arguably the best-known researcher in cross-cultural communication—culture is "software of the mind," a set of collective mental programming that distinguishes one group from another [1]. Below culture rests human nature, the system of mental mechanisms common to all. Above culture sits personality, a unique set of mental programs that individuals do not share with each other.

Shared cultures exist on different social levels, for example on the level of organizations or genders. National culture of one's country of upbringing or long-term residence is the deepest and most influential of all. It ubiquitously breaks through all aspects of everyday life and shapes our social perception.

Culture projects itself through four main attributes:

  • Symbols or words and objects that carry a particular cultural meaning;
  • Heroes or people and personas serving as models of behavior within a culture;
  • Rituals or collective activities socially essential within a culture; and
  • Values or broad tendencies to prefer one state of affairs over the other.

Starting from the top, each consecutive attribute is embedded in our psyche deeper than the previous one. Symbols are easily noticed by outsiders and can be localized, i.e., translated and adjusted between cultures. Values, on the other hand, are implicit, may not always be articulated, are out of sight for an external observer and resistant to change.

In Hofstede's framework, national cultures differ on five dimensions. They describe concepts of social power, individual and group values, risk tolerance, distinctions between social roles of men and women, and attitude to time. Each culture is a unique combination of positioning on the five dimensions, relative to other cultures. Two national cultures may be distant on all dimensions, but may equally be close on some and far-off on others. This is not just a theory. More than 60 countries have been positioned and compared alongside the dimensions, based on empirical data.

The Connection. How does national culture influence UX design?

Using the same framework of cultural dimensions, Aaron Marcus and his team show how cross-cultural differences can subtly reveal themselves in Web design. Pick comparable Web sites from countries distant on a certain dimension, for example, risk tolerance. Examine the sites' approaches to navigation, content complexity, mental models and other UI properties. You may discover that the design of a highly risk-averse culture emphasizes simplicity, clear metaphors, limited choices, and mental models focusing on error reduction. In contrast, the design of a risk-approving culture may have less control of navigation, bigger complexity with maximal content and choice, and mental models focused on underlying concepts rather than narrow tasks [2].

In general, both within and outside the Web domain, national culture makes its biggest impact on four aspects of UX design: user profiles, user needs, mental models, and design goals.

User profiles are mostly affected by the culture's attitude to social power and the strengths of individual and group values. For example, in a design project for a business support branch of a global IT service provider, my team and I studied users in three European countries (the UK, Germany, and Italy), to assess a Web site originally designed based on user data from the US. Our client firmly believed that primary users cannot vary much between cultures; after all, this was a specialized Web site rich in technical and business content. The user profiles in the UK and Germany were indeed close to those in the US: technical managers and specialists with IT decision-making responsibilities. In Italy, however, nontechnical personnel such as secretaries and marketing specialists were the largest user group. Decision-makers rarely interacted with the site directly; it was the responsibility of their subordinates to supply them with all necessary data.

User needs and mental models are influenced by an even broader variety of cultural characteristics than user profiles. In turn, design goals heavily depend on all three of them. Of course, user profiles, needs, and mental models can vary within a single culture, too. However, when different trends become evident globally, ignoring the potential effect of a national culture seems unwise.

The Reality Check. Where does the UX profession stand when it comes to the cross-cultural challenge?

Not surprisingly, our own culture influences how well we recognize and respect cross-cultural differences. In general, culture is treated as a far more important matter outside the English-speaking world than within it; particularly, outside the United States.

In the past few years, we have seen a growing number of reports on overcoming the challenges of multinational usability testing. Most scenarios put forward as best practices by Western authors follow a similar script with minor variations: Hire local practitioners to facilitate in-country tests, translate the material into the local language, and have an interpreter assist you in observing the sessions. In the vast majority of cases, Western practitioners assume responsibility for designing test protocols, as well as for interpreting results and making recommendations. In-country evaluations strive to resemble the standard Western methodology of usability testing: single-user sessions and wide reliance on the think-aloud technique. [see, for example, 3 and 4].

Reports of multinational user research are slightly less common than those of usability testing. With some exceptions, many adopt a similar pattern: Book a few trips to the locale, have an interpreter and local specialists help you with data collection, take the materials back, translate, and design.

In both user research and evaluation, the involvement of local specialists is often limited to auxiliary roles. The ultimate responsibility for protocols, data analysis, and design decisions rests with Western practitioners. Only rarely do we hear stories of cross-cultural collaboration where local specialists are fully in charge of UX activities and decisions concerning their locales. Some design teams invite international colleagues to join the core squad full-time for the duration of a project. Such examples exist, but they are exceptions rather than common practice. At the same time, when standard Western UX methodologies are put to test by local practitioners, they often do not work as prescribed. This is particularly true for cultures with significantly different profiles on the cultural dimensions reflecting social power balance and values of individuals and groups [5].

Ethnography has rapidly become the buzzword of the new millennium. Not many UX practices can afford full-scale ethnographic studies, but many aspire to make ethnographic techniques part of their toolkit [6]. Ethnography has its roots deep in cultural anthropology and cross-cultural communication. More than any other method in the UX arsenal, it has cultural sensitivity at its center. Interestingly, though, not many ethnographic UX studies are cross-cultural. For most, the method has been applied for studying users within designer's own culture.

The Attitude Test. What is your attitude on the place of shared culture in UX design?

To check where you stand, answer the questions below:

  • Do you believe that technological advances blur—or, perhaps, defeat-cross-cultural differences?
  • Do you believe that you can design successfully for a different culture?

If you have answered "yes" to either question, then you do not believe that shared culture is critical to UX design. If technology overcomes the cultural divide, there is not much that distinguishes experience design from software design for offshoring purposes. If you think you can successfully design for users from a different culture, assume that designers from different cultures can successfully design for you.

If you have answered "no" to both, you believe that shared culture is key to UX design. UX design is a local function and belongs to where its users are.

The developing countries are the fastest-growing consumer market in the world. This means that UX design has to grow abroad, close to its users. If you support the shared-culture argument, you should let responsibility for users from other localities go to local designers and keep responsibilities for users local to you. This does not mean that cross-cultural collaboration will cease to exist. Quite the opposite: It will thrive more than ever, but we may have to get used to new roles and a new power balance.

A Prediction. Will UX design go abroad? I believe that in the coming years we will see a significant part of UX design being offshored. Some UX functions will always stay local, particularly UX design of government-related services, as it is intimately tied to local users, local clients, and local specifics. UX design in the commercial sector may, however, see bigger changes, gradually moving closer to its largest consumer markets. Economic reasons aside, there is a real need for this. UX profession is not the only discipline to wake up to the true value and impact of culture. Others, like management, have gone through a similar process in the last two decades and largely changed their attitude towards appreciating cross-cultural differences.

You may try to stop UX design from offshoring. You may also help nurture UX expertise abroad, to bring it up to the standards we thrive to maintain at home. Collaboration and partnership on equal grounds is the only effective way to move forward in the truly global economy.

back to top  References

1. G. Hofstede, Cultures and Organizations: Intercultural Cooperation and Its Importance for Survival, Profile Books, 2003.

2. A. Marcus and E.W. Gould, "Cultural Dimensions and Global Web Design: What? So What? Now What?" AM+A papers, online at

3. A. Bojko, G.S. Low, R.M. Schumacher, "Overcoming the challenges of multinational testing," ACM <interactions>, ACM Press, Nov-Dec. 2005.

4. S.M. Dray and D.A. Siegel, "Sunday in Shanghai, Monday in Madrid?!: Key Issues and Decisions in Planning International User Studies," in N. Aykin (ed.), Usability and Internationalization of Information Technology, Laurence Erlbaum Associates, 2005.

5. A.W. Yeo, "Global-software development lifecycle: An exploratory study," Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference in Human Factors in Computing, ACM Press, 2001.

6. N. Wakeford (ed.), "Innovation through people-centered design-lessons from the USA," UK DTI Global Watch Mission Report Series, October 2004, online at

back to top  Author

Lada Gorlenko

About the Author

Lada Gorlenko is a user experience designer at IBM UK. She has lived and breathed cross-cultural collaboration since the early 1990s as a researcher, trainer, project manager, and expatriate. Lada is also an executive officer of IxDA, the Interaction Design Association ( She can be reached at

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