XVIII.6 November + December 2011
Page: 36
Digital Citation

Leading global UX teams

Daniel Rosenberg, Janaki Kumar

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In 2006, the April + May issue of interactions was dedicated to the topic of offshoring. At the time, the term "offshoring" referred to moving work to low-cost locations, despite any negative connotations. This description of offshoring no longer accurately reflects how work moves around the world from one location to another. These days, projects are more often staffed based on the availability of creative talent, not just cost. For example, when one of the authors made his first business trip to Bangalore in 1988, the labor exchange rate was 22 engineers in India for one in Silicon Valley. Today the rate is in the range of two to three engineers in India to one locally. Despite this unfavorable pricing trend, the flow of work toward India continues to accelerate, thus illustrating there are factors other than cost that affect globalization.

Now, five years later, what is the most effective way to frame the discussion on leading global UX teams? Many of the challenges covered in the April 2006 issue remain problematic today. These include the distribution of roles and responsibilities across organizational and geographic boundaries, as well as the communication and operational problems inherent in working across multiple time zones and cultures. However, none of these issues is unique to UX; they affect all distributed teams.

But a lot has changed over the past five years. The progression of digital globalization has advanced with the advent of social media platforms supporting collaboration, asynchronous communication, and content sharing. (SAP StreamWork [1] is one publically available tool for this purpose.)

Another thing that has changed: Cloud computing as a software distribution model has removed many of the obstacles associated with software application distribution. Thomas Friedman centered his celebrated book The World Is Flat on this observation. The Internet provides economic leverage for designing locally for a global market, in any domain area, and for almost any use case. Cloud computing, when combined with application stores such as the one provided by Apple, has revolutionized the way software is created and distributed. Applications have shrunk in size and increased in diversity. This is especially true for mobile devices, tablets, and in some cases, the desktop, via productivity apps such as Google Docs. This has radically changed what UX professionals design today, how we validate it, and how we deliver the final experience to the consumer.

Against this background of rapid change, it is time to revisit the entire context and framework of UX globalization. This includes UX methods, the actual product content we create, as well as the geographic distribution of UX skills.

Figure 1 outlines the multiple factors to consider while leading and managing global UX teams. They are product strategy, UX organizational strategy, stakeholder location, and UX skills availability. These factors, combined with the accelerated pace of technological change, make managing global UX teams a continuously challenging endeavor.

Typically, the mission of global UX teams falls into one of six categories:

  • Designing a new product for global consumption;
  • Localizing an existing product for national consumption;
  • Designing a totally new product concept for local consumption;
  • Providing a UI governance function to oversee local developers;
  • UX team embedded within an IT organization; or
  • UX consultancy.

In addition to these variations in team mission, common factors such as stakeholder (client) location and availability of specialized UX skills in a particular geography play a role in shaping the global UX team.

Here are some best-practice recommendations based on our combined experience of more than 40 years in the global UX field.

back to top  Designing a New Product for Global Consumption

In this case, the goal of the UX team is to create a multinational product, a challenge unto itself. If a distributed team is assigned, each local organization must engage in frequent coordination with other design locations. They will need to coordinate their activities with product management, engineering, and marketing teams as well, and if these teams are geographically distributed, this adds another dimension of coordination complexity. The keys to success in this scenario are a shared design methodology, strong communication skills in team members, and high-quality program management discipline to ensure that no deliverables are dropped. Our recommendation is to plan and optimize for global dependencies in this case.

This scenario is not unlike what we face in multiple projects in the enterprise software company where we work. The products we create address complex, mission-critical business processes for our customers, who may be multinational companies that are interested in distributing the software globally. To meet this strategic business goal, the UX team is located in multiple geographic locations, mainly in the U.S., Germany, Israel, India, France, Canada, and China. A user-centered design process is rolled out to all locations; training and other resources are made available to the UX professionals. Visual designers, who work closely with the global marketing team, are located centrally to ensure consistent branding. The visual design guidelines and visual assets are made available to all locations. User researchers are available in most locations. However, based on the initial target market of the software release (U.S., Asia, Europe, or Latin America), user researchers travel to conduct site visits to better understand local business conditions. Alternatively, local user research agencies could be contracted. Interaction designers work closely with product management and development throughout the product development lifecycle, so it is advantageous to co-locate interaction designers with these key stakeholders for each project.

Furthermore, our company, similar to many other software firms, has adopted the agile software-development methodology. Agile recommends co-location of critical functions for close cross-functional collaboration. One way to manage these competing goals is to adopt a modular approach and co-locate cross-functional teams for each module, once the overall concept and direction has been agreed upon. The key to success is strong program management that plans time for UX reviews at strategic intervals to ensure that the various product modules work in an integrated and consistent fashion.

back to top  Localizing an Existing Product for National Consumption

In this case the goal is usually to make modifications to an existing product design to meet the needs of the target market. These include functional (for example, language, date formats, currency), legal (for example, country-specific laws pertaining to tax, privacy, trade), and business-process (for example, workflows, cultural tendencies) requirements [2]. The key to success here is to capture and validate the local requirements accurately to create a compelling product for the target market.

One example from our experience involves work we did on a global trade product for the Brazilian market known as Nota Fiscal Electronica. The core product that needed modification was built in Germany, the U.S., and China. The product manager is based in the U.S. and is fluent in Portuguese, so he spent a lot of time traveling to Brazil to talk to customers and document their requirements. The UX team co-located the interaction designer with this knowledgeable product manager and adopted a patterns-based approach to streamline the design and development effort.

back to top  Designing a New Product Concept for Local Consumption

When the strategic business goal is to create breakthrough innovation, minimizing excessive coordination overhead is critical to achieving a successful result. In this case, create a local autonomous organization, preferably with all key stakeholders, such as product management, engineering, and marketing. If it's located outside of corporate headquarters, plan for periodic check-in meetings to make sure the team is headed in the right direction. Co-locating the full set of UX skills mix—user researchers, interaction designers, and visual designers—allows for maximum creative collaboration and speed of execution.

Recently, we created a new product concept that incorporated social media into enterprise software to support the emerging collaboration practices of the business user. To achieve this, we created a core co-located UX team. The visual designers were initially located elsewhere, supporting the project remotely. As the project progressed, it was determined that hiring local visual design contractors was necessary to increase the speed of design delivery. They worked on site with interaction designers and developers, with periodic check-ins from the central visual design and branding teams. The application developers were local, and collaborated closely with framework developers located elsewhere. Quick iterations of ideas, with discussion and feedback cycles unconstrained by time and space, fostered innovative thinking in the team while ensuring overall product quality and efficiency.

back to top  Providing a UI Governance Function to Local Developers

It is not unusual for business software companies to have a low ratio of UX professionals to other stakeholders. In such situations, the UX team cannot scale if they attempt to hand-design 100 percent of all UIs in the product. At the same time, any successful product will need to ensure the overall consistency of UX patterns utilized to fulfill basic usability. In this case, the UX team will need to come up with creative strategies to fill the gap. One such strategy is to categorize the UIs based on user and usage—for example, expert technical users doing system administrative tasks versus non-technical users doing business tasks. To scale effectively, establish UI guidelines and patterns of use for each class of user, build these patterns into the developer tools, and provide UX support for guidelines rollout, UI reviews, and other UI-related questions. In this case the UX team becomes more of a police force to ensure guidelines compliance.

It is important to note that extra management attention is needed to support UX staff placed in this situation. Management will need to articulate the value they provide to the organization and allow for rotation to ensure the UX professionals' creative skills are utilized appropriately. Otherwise, high levels of employee attrition will occur. Additionally, providing UI guidelines training and resources to the development and QA teams will take some burden off the UX professionals over time.

We encountered this situation when we acquired a company with a significant-size development team in India. Its UI staff was absorbed into our central UX organization. We provided training, mentorship, guidance, and support to our new team members. This investment allowed us to rely on them to provide the critical governance function embedded in the local engineering organization. Being in the same time zone, they provided on-site support, enabling the UX organization to be perceived as responsive and of high quality.

back to top  UX Team Embedded in an Internal IT Organization

Many companies maintain an internal IT organization to configure, customize, and integrate standard business software to their specific business needs. They also develop custom applications. In such cases, UX staff may be embedded within the IT organization. The advantage of this model is easy access to end users, who are typically internal company employees. It is logistically less challenging to arrange user-research activities in this scenario, since a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) and other types of special permission are not needed. However, UX may be co-located with IT development staff, while the end users for the system may be globally distributed. With up-front time and resource planning, the UX team can leverage this advantage and design products that truly meet their business users' needs.

back to top  UX Consultancy

In a consultancy model, UX professionals are not typically co-located with their stakeholder clients, since these stakeholders change from project to project. If software development is contracted to global outsourcing firms, UX may also be outsourced to a different agency. These days many large outsourcing firms, such as TCS and Wipro, also provide in-house UX capability as part of their overall service offering. Moreover, there is a trend for UX consulting firms to emerge in the proximity of large service firms. In either case a significant travel budget is needed to negotiate the project plan and contract with the client as well as execute a typical user-centered design (UCD) product engineering cycle.

back to top  Common Recommendations for All Scenarios

There are a few principles that apply universally.

Communication fidelity versus cost. One of the most common reasons for project failure is not accounting for communication costs when allocating global UX resources. Conference calls are just not as high fidelity as face-to-face communication, particularly in the requirements-gathering and validation phases, where observational techniques are more relevant than interviews.

Out of sight, out of mind. The importance of project management and creating visibility in a global team cannot be overemphasized. One way to address this issue is to create a virtual space where the teams can share their work and project status. Many tools can be used for this purpose, but the most popular at this time appear to be wikis. Team members can post links to their designs and invite feedback from other team members and stakeholders. Establishing a culture of structured virtual communication can provide the required transparency to a global UX team and its stakeholders.

Availability and distribution of UX skills. It is erroneous to assume that UX skills are distributed evenly across geographies. Factors such as availability of university and professional training programs determine the pool of UX skills in each location. UX design is still an emerging discipline; not all countries offer mature, multidimensional UX training. Establishing relationships with universities to recruit their students for internships is a good way to tap into the local talent.

Furthermore, based on the UX team's mission and strategy, each location may or may not need to have the full range of interdisciplinary UX skills. For example, software vendors creating a suite of products may choose to centralize the UI guidelines and the visual design function. In such cases, the local UX team—consisting of interaction designers, user researchers, and information architects—can focus on the domain-specific requirements and can rely on a central resource for UI patterns, guidelines, and visual branding. This in turn has an impact on the type of designers who must be hired in each location.

Stay close to decision makers. For any project, co-locating the assigned UX professionals with key business decision makers will have a positive impact on the success of the project and the nature of the UX relationship. This is particularly true for stakeholders with the corporate authority to control the product direction and resource budgets. It is easier for UX to take a leadership role if it is co-located in the corporate or project center of influence.

In summary, as the dimensions identified here indicate, globalization is a complex, multifaceted topic. Our best advice to UX leaders is to analyze their situations based on the six scenarios outlined in this article, and with a clear understanding of their long-term, strategic goals, construct and operationalize their globally distributed team. Addressing the strategic topics identified in these six scenarios first and then focusing on the tactical and operational subtopics will enable the UX function to scale effectively as the team and business mission mature.

back to top  References

1. SAP StreamWork (www.streamwork.com) is a cloud-based collaboration tool that supports decision making.

2. Kumar, J., Rosenberg, D., Hoffmann, P., and Arent, M. Designing international enterprise software. Proc. of the Symposium on Human Interface 2009. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2009; http://www.springerlink.com/content/76728332051gk387/

back to top  Authors

Daniel Rosenberg is a senior vice president for user experience at SAP, the world's largest enterprise applications software company. Prior to joining SAP he was vice president of R&D for UI design at Oracle Corporation. He has authored or co-authored many well-known publications in the HCI field.

Janaki Kumar is the senior director for user experience for SAP's cloud-based CRM applications and Sustainability product suite, which include mobile and desktop interfaces. She specializes in designing business software for a variety of enterprise domains. She has extensive experience working with and leading globally distributed teams located in India, China, the U.S., and Germany.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. Factors to consider in leading global UX teams.

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©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/11  $10.00

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