Managing A Globally Distributed UX Team

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A column by Janet M. Six
June 24, 2011

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss the challenges of managing a globally distributed UX team.

Every month in my column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send us your question at: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at BMC Software; Principal User Experience Architect at Spirit Softworks; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—Senior Information Architect at Friends Provident; UXmatters columnist
  • Mike Hughes—User Assistance Architect at IBM Internet Security Systems; UXmatters columnist
  • Robert Reimann—Lead Interaction Designer at Sonos Inc.; Past-President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
  • Daniel Szuc—Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd.
  • Simon White—Responsable Exp?rience Utilisateur at
  • Jo Wong— Principal and Cofounder of Apogee Usability Asia Ltd

Q: What are the challenges when you have a UX team that is distributed globally?—from a UXmatters reader

“I think the main challenge is that of keeping a consistent design culture and design approach, as well as simply having direct, open, and continuous communication during a design effort,” responds Robert. “In UX, things seem to work best when a small design team can collaborate together extremely closely, so each designer has mindshare with his or her teammates about what process to follow when, how to approach design problems, and how to work through design iterations together.

“The greater the distance and the more hurdles to close collaboration—be they time differences, language or cultural barriers, or simply diverse opinions that are difficult to resolve without sitting down together—the more difficult it is to achieve a desirable design outcome on an individual product or consistency across a suite of products designed by teams in geographically dispersed studios. The bar for communication and collaboration needs to be set quite high to pull this off successfully.

“For a globally distributed design organization, it’s worth the time, money, and effort to bridge the geographic divide by

  • making frequent use of video conferencing, as well as applications that combine voice communication with text chat—Skype works great—and
  • ideally, by cross-pollinating studios—that is, sending designers to help out on projects at studios other than their own, for a week or two at a time.”

Daniel recommends his upcoming book with Whitney Quesenbery on this subject, Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World. Daniel and Jo point out the following “difficulties you’re likely to encounter on a globally distributed UX team:

  • achieving a clear understanding of the product goals globally
  • getting opportunities for team members to meet with one another to share ideas and understand local and cultural insights
  • understanding how both global and local design templates can work together—that is, when it is appropriate to take a global approach or when is it necessary to both understand and bridge local insights, incorporating them into the design
  • understanding when you need to research local markets more deeply and why
  • understanding nuances of and approaches to communication—especially when working with people not speaking their first language
  • keeping the numbers of participants in conference-call meetings smaller to facilitate easier communication among team members in different parts of the world
  • understanding the time differences—so people can do calls at times that suit everyone
  • understanding that UX maturity may be different depending on where a UX team resides—so investment may be necessary to bring all of the UX teams onto the same page
  • investing in UX training that is consistent across global teams, so they approach UX projects in similar ways
  • creating opportunities for UX teams to share project insights and experiences from their own markets—to work smarter
  • helping teams to understand the organizational silos that exist and how a global UX team can help break these down
  • understanding people’s respective roles and strengths—and how this plays into a larger UX strategy”

Building the Team and Establishing Communication

“This is an important question as more and more teams are working globally,” answers Peter. “I’ll take a slightly different approach and identify some ways to address the challenges of being part of a distributed team. First, take time to come together as a team. Remember that all teams, distributed or not, go through Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. And going through these stages takes time. Consider working on a small, noncritical project together first to try to identify and resolve any issues up front, in a safe—or at least safer—setting. This lets all members of a team find their role and understand how to communicate and work most effectively with the other team members. Ideally, this should happen face-to-face—although this isn’t always possible.”

“Many companies that grow through acquisition end up with globally distributed UX teams,” observes Pabini. “Merging UX teams or integrating new people into distributed teams can be challenging, especially when a new person is in a very senior role or in management, as is often the case after an acquisition. To avoid disruptions to a team’s culture, it’s imperative that new people meet everyone on the team face to face as soon as possible. This enables them to establish relationships before any resentment can fester or misunderstandings can arise.”

“Another difficult aspect of maintaining a global UX team relates to remote management,” replies Simon, “including keeping everyone on the same page, getting good guidelines out to them, and not creating a validation bottleneck for new launches.

“I worked on a distributed team with centralization at two levels—one at the US level and another in the UK, out of London. The European teams all met on a quarterly basis to present the latest market trends and communicated regularly by email and telephone. We set up some other collaboration tools like shared network resources and intranet planning tools, but the real challenge was looking after branding, techniques, and studies. Running studies in different markets requires a lot of coordination with local teams to make sure they’re benchmarking the most important sites, that translations come in on time, and that each team has sufficient resources to follow up. Templating and design guidelines lend themselves to centralization quite well, as can CMS systems. Doing actual design projects for which there are differences across disparate markets is the stress test.”

The Global Point of View

“Distributed UX can be difficult from two points of view,” offers Simon. “Usually distributed teams are working in different markets—in which case, the brand may have a different feel in distant markets, and UX guidelines need to encompass that. The other barrier is that brands that are strong in a particular market can dominate UX expectations. Leading sites in your market may already have taught users to expect a button to be left or right aligned.

“We did a test in four European markets and found that mockups that worked well in our home market—France—failed to entice the German or Belgian markets because their market leader in our product area has created search results reading patterns that users identify with. It’s also a particularly big challenge to create user-interface design patterns for multiple-language sites, where the space that is needed to fit everything neatly with English words gets completely exploded when you try to fit the German or Dutch translations.”

Working Across Different Time Zones

“When you are a UX professional in a company whose first name is International, you develop some insight into this,” says a smiling Mike. “As a UX architect for IBM, I work on a software development team—comprising UX, QA, and Development—whose members are located throughout the US and in Brazil. I also work with a mentee who is in Singapore. Lastly, I am active in several internal IBM UX communities whose members span the globe. The two biggest challenges are the time-zone disparity and collaboration technologies.

“It would be easy for me to say that time-zone disparity is no big deal. But I work in the US Eastern Time Zone, and I would be naive to think that is not the privileged time zone. The truth is that we expect Europeans and Asians to work later and Westerners in the US to work earlier to comply with the US East Coast work day. So, if you want to have synchronous conversations, one challenge is that somebody has to get to work early and someone has to stay late. My Singapore mentee and I have a monthly call at 6:00 am my time; 6:00 pm his time. All I can say is: thank goodness Web cams are not involved!

“However, the challenges are not as great as one might think, and in reality, there are actually advantages to being remote from each other.”

Communicating Across Different Time Zones

“My boss has the policy of not having any participants in a room together unless all participants can attend in person,” shares Mike. “In that case, we all attend remotely, even if four of the five are within spitting distance of each other. (I work in Atlanta, so that might be as literal as it is figurative.)”

Pabini concurs, “It’s essential that everyone in a remote meeting be on an equal footing. The only way to ensure that is for everyone to sit at their own desk and join a teleconference or online meeting. Having people who are colocated gather together in a conference room, while others must join via a teleconference puts those who have joined a meeting remotely at a tremendous disadvantage. When some people are sitting together in a conference room, they tend to forget how difficult it is for those on a call to hear. The sound quality is usually bad, and people often forget to push the Polycom? around, so it’s near enough to whoever is speaking. Plus, it’s often difficult for those on the phone to get the floor and say what they need to say at the appropriate moment.

“Leading a remote meeting is a much more challenging job than leading a face-to-face meeting. Much more active moderation is necessary to ensure fairness. For example, it’s important to prevent a meeting’s moving on to a new topic, before making sure everyone has had their say on the current topic. And it’s necessary to remain alert to utterances that let you know someone wanted to speak but lost out to someone more aggressive or with a louder voice. Make sure you give those people their chance to speak. I designed a feature for WebEx Meeting Center that let people ask to speak next to help overcome such problems.”

“A key challenge is overcoming the lack of contextual information, both in work outputs and in day-to-day communication,” advises Peter. “Distributed teams can benefit from regular, scheduled meetings that explicitly involve all team members. These can help to ensure everyone has a voice. If a team consists of people who speak different languages—even if, for instance, English is a shared language—video communication can help to overcome some of the associated issues, by providing contextual cues such as body language. Working on distributed teams can be a major challenge, but it can also be hugely rewarding when done well. Best of luck!”

“Another remaining difficulty is that discussions are sometimes challenging because of phone-connection quality and a limited capability for handling interruptions,” notes Mike. “I know we shouldn’t interrupt people, but you might need to jump into someone’s rant about the lack of funding with the latest data. ‘Wait, the funding just came through!’ That and relationship building. But I’m finding that our daily scrum meetings are letting our personalities emerge and our relationships build.”

Collaboration Technology

“Then, of course, a major challenge is the geographic separation—not being together,” observes Mike. “This can result in two limitations. One, it is harder to build relationships when you are not together. Second, conversations are not as spontaneous as they would be if your cubes were together. The easiest solution is to just decide not to let either of those be true. But this requires some good collaboration tools and a good infrastructure to support them. I’m lucky to work in a supportive environment, and my team members have the following tools at our disposal:

  • We all have conference call accounts.
  • We all have online collaboration accounts for sharing our PC desktops.
  • Both of those accounts are permanent, so I do not have to schedule my access, and my access numbers stay the same.
  • Everyone uses the same calendar client, which lets us see everybody’s availability.
  • Everyone is online, using the same instant messaging client.
  • We have social-networking technology that includes wikis, forums, and activities.

“The irony is that remote meetings are much easier to schedule than face-to-face meetings that require finding a meeting room and setting up projection equipment. The main challenge has been getting used to taking advantage of these tools. I now instant-message my colleagues more readily, and we pick up the phone when typing becomes cumbersome. We also use our social-networking technology to distribute UX designs and scenarios and collect comments asynchronously.” 


Quesenbery, Whitney, and Daniel Szuc. Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World. Boston: Morgan Kaufmann, forthcoming publication on November 15, 2011.

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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