Taking UX offshore

"Pushing the Envelope" from ACM <interactions>, November/December 2005

By Fred Sampson


When I first took notice of the noise around offshoring (offshore outsourcing), I wasn’t certain what to make of it. As an officer in a local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), I knew the topic was gaining traction among members of my profession, and that some folks were getting pretty worked up about it. I knew that my friends at the National Writers Union (NWU) were taking a predictably aggressive stance against offshoring. And I knew that NWU was better suited, by experience, disposition, and by virtue of being a labor union, to lobby and march and rally the troops. STC’s form of organization (a non-profit professional corporation) made lobbying problematic—and I was not at all certain that taking a stance in opposition to offshoring would be appropriate or useful for our members.

STC is an international organization. So is UPA. So is SIGCHI. We have chapters and members all around the world, including significant membership in India. Our members, and readers of this publication, live and work globally. How could any of our organizations oppose offshoring of technical communication, usability, or interaction design and justify our existence to Asia-Pacific members at the same time? We couldn’t, and we don’t.

In the time since offshoring first got my attention, I have met with representatives of NWU, started a Web page on our STC chapter site with references on offshoring, and participated in a panel at an STC conference on the subject. And I’ve watched offshoring turn from a hot-button topic to just another factor in the business decisions that affect how and where—and if—we do our work. We’ve moved beyond the provocative headlines in Time magazine to how-to articles in the business press.

We communicate despite distances of miles (or kilometers), hours, and cultures. We live and work in a global village. The world, as New York Times columnist and book author Thomas Friedman says, is flat.

Today, I think of offshoring as a non-issue. There’s no point in lobbying against it, in writing letters to Congress or Parliament, much less to business executives. It’s a done-deal, a fact of life. Deal with it.

Oh, wait, “How do we deal with it?” you ask? Now we’re getting somewhere.

What role should our professional organizations take in regard to offshoring? Should we be worried about dozens of design schools opening in Chinas? Or should we be looking for ways to educate and support the students who will attend those schools? They’re potential members of our organizations, right? They’re potential colleagues, and in the long run, they’re potential employers and clients, aren’t they?

So, how do we deal with offshoring? How do you work with teams of developers, designers, and writers located in other countries? How do you convince your employer or client that the budget should cover the extra cost of your team in London or San Francisco because the value of your work will outweigh the savings of sending the work to Bangalore? Or do you? Oh, you are working in Bangalore?

If you work with distributed teams, is the entire workload distributed, or are certain types of work done in certain locations? Do you assume that the creative work should be done in the West, and the repetitive work done in the East? Or do you use brilliant workers where you find them?
If you attended The Great Debate at CHI2005, or read Aaron Marcus’ recap in the July/August 2005 issue of ACM interactions, then you know that some usability practitioners believe that we’re moving toward an environment of “global harmony,” working together with distributed teams to make positive user experiences at lower cost. Are we just around the corner from all joining hands under the UXnet umbrella, singing Kumbaya together? In what language will we be singing?

I work for a large, international company, with offices and development teams around the world. One of my projects includes a team in Beijing, China, a team in Charlotte, North Carolina, a team in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a team in Silicon Valley, where I work. My managers know full well that the company might save money by having some of our work—human factors, visual design, technical communication—done elsewhere. And they know how important it is that we demonstrate, on a daily basis, that the company and its shareholders receive value for the extra expense of the work that is being done in Silicon Valley. Do you think they remind us? You bet they do.

As a technical communicator, I know that the more skills I can add to my tool kit, the more valuable I am. Being a good communicator with written language is of value, but knowing how to use the languages of visual design, of interface design, and of business make me even more valuable. Would an MBA help even more? Maybe so. Do I believe that just being a well-educated native of the United States guarantees me perpetual employment? Not for a minute. Do I think that living and working in the most expensive housing market in the U.S. might not be such a smart thing? Every day. Have I thought about moving? More than once. In fact, I know several technical communicators who have worked in other countries, and who found it rewarding and enlightening.

And if you’re already working in India, China, Singapore, the Philippines, or Eastern Europe, doing work that used to be done in New York, London, Vienna, or Silicon Valley, I invite you to join the discussion. The focus of the March/April, 2006, issue of ACM interactions will be offshoring. Tell us what you need from STC, from UPA, from SIGCHI, to feel that you’re part of our communities. Do you need education and training? Support? Better communication?

Or would it just be better if I retired early and got out of the way?

Referenced URLs:

National Writers Union Offshoring Campaign, www.nwu-oppose-offshoring.org/

STC Silicon Valley Chapter’s Offshoring page, www.stc-siliconvalley.org/offshoring/index.html

Society for Technical Communication, www.stc.org

Usability Professionals Association, www.upassoc.org

ACM SIGCHI, www.sigchi.org

UXnet, www.uxnet.org

About the Author

Fred Sampson is a co-chair of BayDUX, a member of SIGCHI, and a senior member of STC. In his spare time, Fred works as an information developer at at IBM’s Silicon Valley Lab in San Jose, California. Contact him at wfreds@acm.org.

Copyright Notice

© ACM 2005. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in ACM <interactions>, Volume XII.6, ISSN 1072-5520, (November/December 2005) http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1096554.1096569.