Designing for the cultural 'other' (wasEthnographicresearch methods)

5 Aug 2005 - 5:18pm
504 reads
Anirudha Joshi

Marc Rettig < It's difficult enough to manage collaboration and quality
when a team is homogenous. Add distance, language, cultural and
time-zone issues, and you risk canceling the would-be advantages of team
diversity. Which is another reason I believe the ideal is for the team
to be diverse, and located in the same place.>

Interesting observations - mostly, I agree. Given our current design
(and perhaps management) tools and methods. And I did not mean to
discount the project constraints that often do not let us do our best.

However, I feel that distance and time-zone issues can be turned to an
advantage - the IT industry has shown how they can actually cut the
calendar time in a project, making work happen 'round the clock' turning
time zone differences to an advantage. About costs - given the economic
disparities in the world, for now it is usually optimal to distribute

Communication within a team (global or local) is an important problem I
agree - this is where lot has happened, but much more needs to happen
yet. For example, we sometimes use the technique of affinity diagram to
bring out the top insights from user studies and share them with all
stakeholders. When we do it 'locally', we use post-it notes and
printouts to make our affinity and we invite as many stakeholders as we
can to build the affinity. But when we need to share our affinity across
distances, we either make PowerPoint slides or websites to document the
affinity diagram. Which is often a good idea even for local projects -
post-its on chart paper don't last long, take up too much space and are
harder to 'search' and cross reference. Building an affinity with
participants over a video conference - now that is something I have not
had the opportunity to do so far.

Language and culture are the hardest bits - I completely agree. But here
is an interesting experience: I once worked with a team comprising of
Indians (who themselves speak many different languages) and Koreans on a
project. English was the natural language to go between, though some of
our team-mates had difficulty with conversing in English. We found that
it was as easy (if not easier) for us to communicate over email than it
was to communicate face to face!! In email, the effect of accent and
style got minimized, and you got some time to think before you respond.
Such gaps will be un-natural in a f2f meeting. Even in synchronous
communication, chat was better for team meetings than speaker-phone (and

The f2f meetings were important, but in a cultural sort of a way. We had
lunches and dinners, helped the guests with some sight seeing and got to
know each other better. Some critical aspects of the projects were
resolved only during f2f discussions, of course. But distance was not as
much a barrier in this case, as one might imagine.

Also, experience counts. It has not happened yet, but if the same
Indo-Korean team members were to work together on the next project, it
will be a lot smoother now that we have worked together once.

Marc Rettig <I visited Bangalore and Mysore this past January, and met a
number of people who work in outsourcing firms... There are people in
India doing design and usability work for U.S end-users, without having
been to the U.S.>

Exactly. This is where we need win-win methods to work across distances.
The 'assignment swap' exercise I mentioned in my last email is an
attempt to train designers to work in this context. (the European
students who will design a taxi meter for India would not have visited
us here - we will see what happens). We need methods, for example, to
find and document design insights that a person from a different culture
can trust and respond to.

Marc Rettig <It's the reverse of what we here often think of as the
"cross-cultural" challenge. What a world.>

For me, it is the reverse of the reverse :). That is what makes the
world an interesting place.


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