Over roughly the last 10 years, China and India have given way to a huge rise in technology outsourcing. Jobs are outsourced from companies like Microsoft, Google, T-Mobile, Honeywell, and many others. In Microsoft I’ve worked with teams in both India and China developing software for a variety of uses. Having our headquarters in the US, I usually work with small satellite teams in these countries. I couldn’t help but wonder why these countries who had become huge in the area of software technology, struggled so much in the area of user experience and UI innovation.Note: this article refers specifically to software UX. Both of these countries have very innovative and creative aspects in other areas of their culture, and I’m not expressing these comments as blanket statements.
Specifically I noted a series of different challenges with each team. For example the team in India has appeared weaker in developing the details in their work. While they grasp large issues, nuances often have to be explained in painstaking detail, which more or less involves giving all the specifics of those nuances.
Justin Maguire, a Creative Director as Frog has dubbed this the 70/30 effect. The first 70% of the process around big and broad thinking is great, but the last 30% of the details is like squeezing blood from a rock. Even with these explained down to “dotting the i‘s and crossing the t’s” we often found ourselves coming up short in the last 30%.
The China team has several similar shades, but in a slightly different flavor. While the nuances we needed often had to be detailed out in exact specifications, China seemed to be great about copying those details in an amazing and precise method. The last 30% was pristine when given all the specifics. When design specifics were enumerated out, the team could carry through the task with a level of detail rarely seen. This was especially apparent in visual UI work. Conversely the initial 70%, or big thinking, was slightly rougher to achieve. Two countries, both huge in technology, with somewhat opposing problems. This became my curious head scratcher, and I wanted to learn more.
Given the issues and connections I was seeing, I decided to go straight to the source and start to ask the offices I had worked with, as well as other designers I found through my various networks about these issues. These are just the initial thoughts I’ve started to gather. I plan to interview many more people with what I’ve deemed my curiosity research project, but thought it would be interesting to share a few of the insights I’ve gathered thus far to give a view to others who work with these countries. Given the format of Johnny Holland, I’ve kept these short, but often there are great (and sometimes very amusing) stories behind each point.
In interviewing people thus far there have been three points that have so far come forward
- The “Does it work?” principle: This appears to be the strongest rationale the attributes to the lack of detail I discuss above. In talking with designers in India they stressed that with Indian culture, given their daily life, the details are often a luxury. For example, in the morning they must think of how to get work, making food, washing clothes, getting fresh water, and taking kids to school among other things. Simply from a cultural and living conditions standpoint there is a strong focus on getting by. Details are a luxury that many don’t have in this society. Europe and America have the basics taken care of, which allows them to culturally focus on the details of what a water bottle looks like, having a specific cut to jeans, or separate forks for salad, soup, and cereal.
- Schools have become a common thread in most of my interviews. For the most part I’ve only found three schools named when discussing design and user experience specifically, with the National Institute of Design (NID) being the top. This school was more of less started by C&R Eames during their work with the Indian government. Secondarily within schools that exist for teaching design, there appears to be a lack of process and design thinking, with a stronger weight on the final product. This type of oversight may account for the lack of innovative software UX. In the end, there just isn’t a strong student community or education around design, which would then carry into the workforce culture.
- As a last and very logical point, we just haven’t used India as a country to outsource software and technology design experiences, so there has been no reason for them to exercise that muscle, as a result, it’s never been grown. The corollary I was presented with when talking with a designer in India was to think of UX in the US around the 1980’s. It was there, but just barely. It had just started to be cultivated as a solid field.
In the end, we’re asking India to apply Western techniques that have been developed from specific cultural surroundings but have never been part of daily life in their culture. While we tend to overlook it, when I hear people talk about it, it’s almost a “duh, how did I miss that” moment. To be reminded of this, has certainly been an eye opener.
With China I’ve been able to get to less people, but found these two points of interest.
- Waiting for commands/chain of command/questioning commands. I’ve seen this in several Asian countries, so it’s not without expectation that China has the same issue. Chain of command and management plays a very strong role in corporations. When you’re handed a command from your manager, you are attentive to that command, and you are more or less at the mercy of your superior in a way. In addition, decisions made by superiors are often less questioned. This means less room for rigorous debate of ideas or pushing back on potential bad decisions. Often with the UX field, the debate can make or break a product. It gives way to new ideas and innovation. Without that, it’s somewhat expected that products may not be as innovative and strong as they could be. If your ultimate goal is to please your manager, it’s easy to see how the details can play a big factor. Ideas and principles are hard to measure, but the physical details are much easier, making a UX culture ripe for lack of conceptual play, and tight on measurable specifics. With the focus on details, can often come a lack of being able to see the 10,000 foot view, playing into the idea of the last 30% is strong, whereas the broad 70% can be a struggle.
- Second, I’ve found in my discussions, success is often achieved from mastering old techniques. For example, calligraphy is mastered successfully from studying old masters, but there isn’t high praise given to striking out your own path and finding new innovative ways to approach the discipline. Therefore, the desire is to achieve parody of something, not strike out to create something new. With what I’ve seen working with various teams, this echoes true for me. The ability to create great work from a detailed system is amazing, but to blaze new trails is a long, difficult, and tough road.
I’ve discovered a wealth of cultural information from these discussions and as I mentioned, these few points are just the start and the most interesting I’ve found. I’m not exactly clear what my desired outcome is, as this started as a simply curiosity issue, but I hope it’s also piqued others interest from reading this.
If we really want to move towards a more global focus in our teams, and a better age of thinking and design, we must develop a strong appreciation and understanding of the other cultures we work with. It’s not a nicety, but a necessity. Especially if you manage teams across these countries. The rise of these two specific countries, with cultures so different from Europe and the US, points to a specific need to understand what drives them, and why they have developed into what they are. This understanding will help everyone in finding the path to greater partnerships.
These links may provide some additional thoughts for those interested
- Hans Rosling talking at TED about Asia’s rise
- Devdutt Pattanaik discusses east vs west; the myths that mystify
- Charles and Ray Eames on design for India
Do you feel I’m incorrect on these cultural statements? What to give your perspective? Are you part of the workforce in one of these countries mentioned or worked with them? Let me know and I’d love to set up some time to chat over the phone and continue collecting information.