Does globalization increase productivity? Does it make companies more profitable? There are obvious cost savings due to salary differences across the world, but when we go beyond this obvious point, we find both benefits and deficits. In this note, I explore the more intangible benefits and drawbacks of globalization from a UI designer's point of view.
I am a user interface designer working in California for a large multinational company based in Europe. I am part of a broadly distributed interdisciplinary team, working on a strategic project with many interdependencies. My team members work in six geographical locations, namely Germany, the US, India, Israel, China, and Ireland. My day typically consists of early-morning conference calls with Europe, late-evening conference calls with Asia, and working with my local team members in between. In the morning I might have 20 to 30 email messages from various parts of the world. Some messages are attempts by my colleagues and coworkers to inform me and others on what is going on around the world. Some are messages seeking information from me. I can easily spend two or more hours a day managing my email and responding to messages seeking my response. After this I get down to my real workdesigning, thinking, drawing, and writing.
On the plus side, I love working with colleagues around the world. People from different cultures have different approaches to solving problems. At design time, it is great to get feedback from an angle that I may not have considered. It gives me a global perspective and increases my awareness of being a global citizen. At any point in the day, I roughly know what time it is in Germany, Israel, China, and India. Sometimes, globalization even directly increases my productivity. I ask someone in China for some information before I go to bed, and I have a detailed answer when I wake up. No time lost! I love those moments.
On the minus side, not all moments are as efficient as I have described above. There are delays in response and communication, and in such cases I might lose a day instead of a few hours. I just have to plan for this and work around it. Similarly, as a UI designer, I am not there to directly answer design questions as they come up. Do I cause delays for others? Or worse, do they work around it by making assumptions? I have to make conscious efforts to be available to avoid these situations. Hence, I always carry a mobile phone with email and SMS capabilities.
To be honest, responsiveness is really an individual thing. I have colleagues across the world who are extremely reachable, even at very late hours. However, as a rule, I try not to abuse this, so they will continue to be responsive.
Communication and collaboration can take up a significant chunk of project time. I have heard that each geographic location takes up 25 percent of communication overhead. If this is true, it takes only four locations to get to 100 percent! Where is the time to do the real work?
Management of a globally staffed project is very difficult. Unless there is diligent project planning, activities can get overlooked. It is hard enough to manage projects when your team is staring you right in the face. Having team members across the globe, with different vacation practices and holidays, makes project planning that much more difficult. By the time projects are divided into subprojects, subprojects into tasks, and tasks assigned to people, some interproject dependencies are forgotten or not considered. As a designer, if you are the one talking to development organization(s) and marketing, you might be the first to identify such gaps. I bet this communication overhead goes beyond 25 percent!
My company's official language is English, and I have to say that most of my colleagues around the world are conversant in it. However, from time to time, there are instances of miscommunication and misinterpretation based on regional differences. For example, American expressions such as "heard through the grapevine" and "piece of cake" don't translate well literally, and American colleagues have been confused by emails referring to "handy," which is the German word for cell phones. To avoid this, as a matter of habit, I reread my emails before pressing the "send" button, and I enunciate deliberately during conference calls.
As a UI designer, how do you truly brainstorm and conduct design sessions with someone 10,000 miles away via NetMeeting and a telephone line? The best you can do is to take turns presenting and giving feedback. It is difficult to work on an idea together. It is time consuming, and technology gets in the way. Our company has invested in more-sophisticated technology, but hardly anyone I know uses it. For instance, we have a large white board that is supposed to take pictures as you draw, but we do teleconferencing so frequently that no one wants to mess with all that clunky technology. And video conferencing is not really needed for the type of design sessions we want to have. It is just a lot more convenient to pick up the phone and call. Even that can be complicated if there are more than two parties involved in more than two countries. We usually set up an international call-in number, and all participants call from wherever they are. We make it work for us, but we could really use better collaboration tools.
Traveling is an option, although an expensive one. At first traveling can be fun. We get to see and socialize with our colleagues and attach a person's physical appearance to an email address. We form relationships and connections. In an odd way, subsequent remote communication seems easier after just one face-to-face contact. Traveling for key strategic meetings is good, but we cannot be flying over all the time. It is extremely disruptive to our work and personal lives. It is expensive for the company. And if we travel too much, we spend more time worrying about our baggage arriving along with us, and getting over jet lag, and less time thinking about design details and work goals.
Then comes sleep deprivation. We all complain about it, but those working in a distributed environment on high-pressure projects feel the need to work around the clock. You have to consciously set time aside for family and personal health, since, any time of the day or night, there is always a team member out there who is happy to work with you when they see you online on IM. The work day never seems to end.
To summarize, globalization is an inevitable part of our work life, and it does offer significant benefits. But working as a UI designer in a distributed environment also poses some unique challenges. Some of these challenges may be addressed by setting up global organizations that are cognizant of the communication and collaborative nature of design work. Here are some suggestions that might help managers setting up global organizations to alleviate these challenges:
- Consider the communication overhead of a distributed environment, and factor that into the equation while calculating the total cost savings of globalization. Granted, it is not simple to calculate these hidden costs, but being aware that they exist will make estimates more realistic.
- Co-locate team members who need to collaborate more closely. If this is not possible, acknowledge that these persons are shouldering the additional communication cost and add that into the project plan.
- Avoid splitting projects between more than two time zones. It becomes increasingly difficult to schedule meetings during the normal waking hours of team members when there are more than two distant time zones involved.
- Designate a person to make sure the interdependencies are not overlooked. This person could be responsible for the overall project across locations. This will not be an easy job, and there is a danger that the wrong person on the job could exacerbate the situation by adding yet another layer of bureaucracy and no value. However, if this person is knowledgeable, competent, and motivated, it might minimize what falls through the cracks and ease some of the communication burden on the other team members.
We designers have always built bridges and made connections as part of our jobs. We routinely translate between user needs, marketing requirements, technology, and product functionality. Globalization adds just another dimension to this collaborative endeavor. With enough flexibility, creativity, and realistic planning, we can find ways to work seamlessly with our colleagues, regardless of whether they are located across the hallway or across the oceans.
This is just the start of a conversation. There is more to be said on this topic. Do you have a globalization story to tell? Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Janaki Mythily Kumar
About the Author
Janaki Mythily Kumar is a manager in the User Experience team at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, California. She has worked in the field of human-computer interaction since 1994 on products in the CRM, financial and procurement domains. She collaborates on a daily basis with her colleagues around the world to design and build applications that support the needs of the enterprise worker.
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