Sunday, April 02, 2006


remote UCD and the offshore factor

Looking over the latest CHI Interactions on Offshoring, I ask myself: Is usability about people, or data and specifications? That is the perhaps the central question when looking at how global outsourcing might affect usability over the next five or ten years.

Princeton economist Alan Blinder believes the only jobs immune from offshoring are those where hands-on or face-to-face contact is essential. Many standardized jobs can nearly as easily be done offshore by people following detailed predictable procedures. Onshore jobs will be "in the delivery of services where personal presence is either imperative or highly beneficial. Thus, the U.S. workforce of the future will likely have more divorce lawyers and fewer attorneys who write routine contracts." (see, for example, Will Your Job Survive?)

If one sees usability primarily has the collection and analysis of quantifiable data on user behavior, outsourcing these tasks seems possible, given adequate infrastructure. There are numerous firms selling click stream solutions to track user behavior, and VPN technologies are sure to improve to allow better self-administered user tests. There are even a few companies developing remote elicitation tools to collect data on user wants or mental models, to provide some raw data to shape new designs.

For "mature" user interfaces, where a system of specifications has been defined extensively, offshore designers can design variants without problem. Modularity in UIs is good design practice, and makes it easy for third parties to create new UIs consistent with existing ones.

There are inexorable pressures on user interface design to develop practices that yield more predictability, reusability, and speed to the production of user interfaces. These pressures are driving the creation of in-house corporate, and industry-wide standards. And standards are the lifeblood of the outsourcing industry. If a process can be standardized, it can be outsourced.

Despite the pressures to define standards, there are many, many things about UI design that remain, and will likely remain, messy. Usability professions are like divorce lawyers, and UCD practitioners like psychotherapists soothing the traumatized divorcee. People a want to be happy, and formulaic standardized responses will not offer them the satisfaction they seek to embark on a new, happier life with a new technology.

Telecommunications doesn't seem likely to displace the face-to-face communication needed to understand the why of an issue. Self administered questionnaires and remote discussions are hardly a robust source for insight. Innovation is a counterbalance to standardization. Innovation can be augmented by telecommunications, but face-to-face discussion seems vital.

While I fully expect an offshore aspect to UCD to develop, I also believe that context is too crucial for offshore usability to become a full fledged alternative to onsite usability.

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