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 Voyages-sncf.com
- 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.”