Global UX: A Journey

January 23, 2012

In our increasingly connected world of 2012, we have more ways of continually learning to better understand, communicate, live, and work with each other, both locally and globally. The old boundaries, borders, and divisions are slowly disappearing, and established systems are starting to break down, making it challenging to learn what this new world means to all of us.

When it is easy to become a friend of someone who does not live in our neighborhood or even our country, our assumptions about other people start to change. Similarly, the UX research and design professions are seeing a shift that edges us beyond the boundaries within which we live and work, forcing us to look outside our window when designing and improving the products and services we work on.

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A Glimpse of Our Research

In this article, we would like to introduce you to a glimpse of what we learned during our research for our book Global UX: Design and Research in a Connected World. We spoke with 65 UX professionals from around the world who have lived or worked in different countries. We heard a lot of stories that suggest a fundamental change is occurring within some large corporations. Instead of all decisions coming from central headquarters, people and offices around the world are starting to have more influence. Innovation really can come from anywhere.

The Journey We Share

Let’s start with the personal characteristics you need to do global UX work by asking some questions:

  • What does it mean to think locally and globally?
  • How can we create teams that have the right blend UX skills and backgrounds that encourage global thinking?
  • What rules can a global UX team all agree upon and apply to move well beyond the constraints of their own backgrounds?
  • What does it take to lead a global UX team?
  • How do we stay culturally open, aware, and relevant?
  • What local and global research do we need when to better understand and design a successful product?
  • How can you communicate effectively and in globally appropriate ways when a UX team is distributed globally?
  • What does it mean to work for a global business today?

We hope this will be just the beginning of our journey together.

Working Globally

When we talk about global work, we use this term broadly. Global work may encompass many different relationships between people, companies, products, and cultures, including

  • a group of people from a one country working on a project in another country or for a market in another country
  • a group of people who hail from many countries working on a project for users in a single country
  • partners from several different countries who work together
  • a global company that employs people all over the world
  • working on products or services that people in more than one country will use

A Reflection

A large part of our UX research practice requires us to look beyond our own needs and empathize with the people for whom we are designing products. We may have a deep understanding of the different methods we can use to gain user and business insights, but sometimes there is a real need and an opportunity to get out of our own homes and offices, into places where people are using our products and services. This may require us to travel to another department, office, city, state, or country.

The distributed nature of our teams at work may result in personal challenges, as we try to stay focused on user needs and do high-quality design and design validation work. Our teams may work in different cultures, economic conditions, and time zones.

Global UX Starts with You

So, what characteristics do we, as UX professionals, need to think about and develop over time, in preparation for embarking on a journey that will take us beyond global boundaries, while trying to see beyond our core beliefs and understandings? Figure 1 illustrates some characteristics of UX professionals who practice global UX effectively.

Figure 1—Global UX starts with you
Global UX starts with you

Here is some guidance on what to think about when you’re practicing global UX.

Be Open

Defining constraints is an important part of design, because it helps us work out what a product or service should do and get it to market. But it’s also risky for a project to become too constrained too early. This can quickly shut down our view of the world, possibly resulting in our reaching the wrong conclusions or failing to see beyond today’s design framework. Part of being open is our ability to ask: What do I know today and what opportunities exist for me to learn more? Who do I need to speak with who can help inform my learning objectives? When do I need to move outside of my learning objectives—both to confirm what I know and also to see what I don’t know?

“This isn’t just a journey to a different country or a different culture. You can have a cross-cultural experience anywhere down the block. A lot of us go through the world with our attention kind of centered inside ourselves so that we see everything through the boundaries of our own frames. We go to Europe and never get out of our own culture: eat at McDonald’s, stay in a hotel, just see some different stuff.

“But you can flip a switch and move your center of attention outside of yourself, and put your history and assumptions and judgments and presuppositions behind. Just see the world for what it is. Like a little kid, you can see everything as new, including you in this place and in relation to this place and these people.”—Marc Rettig

Be Prepared

You need to prepare for what you want to discover, but also what you are not prepared to discover. You should have a plan to define the product or service on which you’re focusing, but also cover what you think you don’t know. Write rich descriptions of the people and places you are visiting and any cultural assumptions you may need to reconsider. This can help your team members to understand what you all want to discover collectively through your research.

Be Flexible

Sometimes a business can approach design research like its the one and only opportunity to discover all of the answers in the universe about users and their context. You need to be flexible—changing a plan as necessary, adjusting your research questions, searching for observations that go beyond the obvious, allowing for delays, and looking at situations, stories, and contexts from other people’s perspectives, including users, colleagues, and stakeholders.

Be Local

From the time you leave your home to visit another locale, it’s very important to transition into a mindset that lets you understand what it takes to truly understand the locale you are visiting. A local buddy can help you make this transition, acting as your guide to the place you are visiting—even before you travel there—letting you gain a much better understanding of how locals live their daily lives, and helping you share your observations, photos, videos, and stories with others.

“I’m one of those people who love knowing about other cultures and new people and different ways of people. I assume not everyone feels that excited. They tell me ‘I go get the job done and I come back.’ But, for me, personally, it’s one of the most fun parts of life. I guess I just have that natural interest. I love talking to people and getting to know them.”—Jhumkee Iyengar

Be Diverse

We all have some interesting things to share with others—things that show our diversity. It is important to recognize and celebrate diversity. But we should also ensure that we don’t focus too much on our differences for the sake of their being differences rather than understanding how our differences and similarities play out in the designs we create and the work that we do. We must be able to appreciate where we all come from and give that the respect it deserves, but, at the same time, let ourselves move toward being able to see new moments and opportunities.

“You will never get to the point where you understand it all. It’s possible to understand a great deal, but there will always be part of it that’s a mystery. Maybe this is part of the human condition.

“There are things that the Americans do that just baffle me. There are things that the Germans do that I have no idea about and have no tie to understanding, even though I grew up speaking the language. There are many things that I will never understand, and I’m kind of okay with not understanding.”—Henning Fischer

Be Curious

Go into each experience as curious and naïve as possible. Bas Raijmakers and Geke van Dijk echoed many others when they said, “We are interested in people and stories and personal experience, and also in the lives other people are living.”

“I love doing work in different cultures just because it feels like it tests my edges and broadens my horizons as a human being as well as a researcher, and it gives me all of those experiences that I’m looking for in such a way that it tests me.”Jenna Date

Be a Storyteller

Bring back more than just facts and snapshots. Think about the real lives behind your observations. What are people’s personal narratives? How are they related to your own experience, viewpoints, or ways of thinking? When you bring back your experiences in other cultures to share with your colleagues, tell the underlying story with empathy.

Be Kind

We should be kind equally to ourselves, to our colleagues, and to the people we are designing products for. Our kindness reflects the way we do our work and allows everyone in the user experience ecosystem to do the best work possible—hopefully, creating more socially responsible designs.

Figure 2 shows some of the key attributes that the practice of global UX requires.

Figure 2—Some attributes you should have
Some attributes you should have

Think Globally

The need to think globally is a given today. Particularly in user experience, our work begins with people and requires our interpreting and integrating their needs into our designs. It all starts with the individual. You!

It’s important for you to think about a world beyond your comfort zone and be open to new experiences and new cultures. 

Principal Researcher at WQusability

Co-founder of Center for Civic Design

New York, New York, USA

Whitney QuesenberyWhitney is an expert in user research, user experience, and usability, with a passion for clear communication. As Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design, she works with large and small companies to develop usable Web sites and applications. She enjoys learning about people around the world and using those insights to design products where people matter. She also works on projects with the National Cancer Institute / National Institutes of Health, IEEE, The Open University, and others. Whitney has served as President of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA), on the Executive Council for UXnet, on the board of the Center for Plain Language,and as Director of the UPA Usability in Civic Life project. She has also served on two U.S. government advisory committees: Advisory Committee to the U.S. Access Board (TEITAC), updating the Section 508 regulations, and as Chair for Human Factors and Privacy on the Elections Assistance Commission Advisory Committee (TGDC), creating requirements for voting systems for US elections. Whitney is proud that one of her articles has won an STC Outstanding Journal Article award and that her chapter in Content and Complexity, “Dimensions of Usability,” appears on many course reading lists. She wrote about the use of stories in personas in the chapter “Storytelling and Narrative,” in The Personas Lifecycle, by Pruitt and Adlin. Recently, Rosenfeld Media published her book Storytelling in User Experience Design, which she coauthored with Kevin Brooks.  Read More

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

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