Monday, November 29, 2004
Limits of offshore user experience research
Is usability, like programming, "easy" to outsource to foreign countries? Only at the most basic level, examining key-stroke level usability. As soon as one factors in words, colors, and pictures, culture starts to become a factor. One needs a local presence to understand issues. In my experience with international testing, some things turn out as uniform results across countries, other things vary by country. But often one doesn't know which will be which before hand. Even when you can guess there are differences, you aren't expert to say what's appropriate. I've shown the US auto site to British users who are puzzled by the phrase "preowned."
On the Core77 site, Steve Portigal highlights an interesting interview with Samsung's design chief in Business Week. Samsung is increasing user centered research and opening more design offices around the world to understand local markets, and local tastes. Samsung is a company that is moving away from 1980s style globalism to more current localism. It is a rough process. Another profile of Samsung design, in the Tokyo Axis magazine, notes how Samsung had to scale back its global design outreach following the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. In a profile of Samsung Design Europe in London, the German magazine form (Jan 2004) notes the cultural gap between the hip Clerkenwell studio and corporate HQ in Seoul. One can imagine some accountants at Samsung seeing the overseas design centers as a source red ink, not profits.
Samsung's European studio has done interesting user research on kitchen environments, and has shaken up design thinking at Samsung. Consumers are positive to the new offerings. Samsung products are seen as more innovative, user friendly, and cool than in the past.
If user research is seen as a cost, instead of as a source of value, some businesses will be tempted to cut corners by doing research at home for foreign markets, or outsourcing usability to countries seen as less costly. But it is a false economy. You can't know your customers unless you talk to them. Talking to some foreigners you want to pretend are like your customers is not true user research. The fact that Samsung, a firm historically known for competing on cost, has decided to localize user research to meet the needs of specific markets, is a sign that outsourcing is not the way forward.