Here, There & Everywhere: Global Design Teams

Jan 7
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We always envisioned Design For Use as a geographically distributed design firm. We started our Austin, Texas (USA) and Delhi (India) offices only months apart. Our structure was born more out of a subconscious shrug of the shoulders that this is the only way to go, rather than a conscious strategic decision about “cost arbitrage” or “market opportunities.” As we’ve grown, we have stuck with our global perspective and continued to execute our projects using our internal teams and a network of freelance and contract partners from many different areas not just from the cities where we have offices. After 5 successful years running our business, we can now better articulate the reasons why our initial instinct is really the way that design firms should work. Some of these reasons are validated by the mushrooming of multi-national corporations all over the globe, while other reasons may be more contextual to the field of design.

Design is Global

Design is rarely local in an interconnected world. Most of our clients are designing for audiences that have little regard for arbitrarily drawn geographical boundaries. To be able to design contextually for global users, one needs to have a global design sensibility. Distributed teams source their talents from multiple locations giving it a diverse outlook necessary for a design with a broader appeal or localizing designs based on different aesthetic traditions.

Or, Maybe Design is Local

One of our earliest clients wanted to first design and test a product in India before going international. Our senior visual designer based in Austin created moodboards that were neutral, subtle, conservative and professional. Brilliantly executed and lovely to look at, these designs were perfectly suited to (Western) users accustomed to products from google, Apple, Microsoft, et al. The client rejected all of the designs, stating that they were too bland and would not work in India, where more saturated colors, and even clashing colors are a common sight. We then showed our client several designs created by our (more junior) Delhi-based designer, that we been previously discarded after internal reviews. Needless to say, these bold designs were approved immediately with some minor tweaks. Later on, we did create additional skins suitable for audiences outside India.

Serve Your Customers, Locally

Being located in the same city as your prospective customers gives you a significant competitive advantage. It increases your chances of winning a project due to better visibility and lower travel costs. Proximity translates into more frequent face-to-face meetings, resulting in fewer design iterations to capture the requirements of our clients. Our sense is that we require far fewer revisions to deliverables (at least 20%) for projects where we have a local presence; consequently, we can propose more aggressive timelines. Conversely, we tend to buffer our project timelines a little bit more when working with a remote client, that may require travel and virtual communication.

Even when working remotely, we still conduct our initial stakeholder meetings — to gather requirements, understand the vision and build trust — in person. Additionally, all the major deliverables at the end of each design phase are also presented face-to-face. Conference calls plus screen-sharing applications (webex, gotomeeting) are adequate for most of our other reviews.

Research and Testing Reduce Regional Bias

Designers and user reasearchers from different backgrounds cover a more comprehensive view of the results. You could possibly achieve the same objective by instituting a rigorous hiring process, but we have noticed designers working together at the same location for a long period time may tend towards homogeneity.

For example, Indians tend to be far less critical of a design during a usability test or an interview. We also noticed that they consistently give much higher SUS ratings than Americans. Without a cultural understanding of the reluctance in India to criticize publicly, the results would paint an entirely different picture. We try to counter this behavior through a more intimate interview setting and wording the tasks in third person (Imagine “you are so and so” using this application, instead of how would “you” use this application).

Rock around the clock (almost)

There is nearly an 11-hour time difference between Delhi and Austin, that works to our advantage and allows our India team to pick up where our US team leaves off. We still surprise our clients, when after a 5pm design review meeting, they find revisions in their inbox at 9am the very next day. Although we do make sacrifices in terms of having to attend the occasional early-morning or late-evening meeting, we keep relatively sane hours by implementing good communication practices and using our project management tools to their fullest extent. Generally speaking, neither of our teams is putting in crazy hours unless we are on a project deadline.

More design iterations

During our annual review of completed projects, we have noticed that the “best” projects were those which had a greater number of iterations. A greater number of iterations is not always the result of more comfortable project timelines. Sometimes we are able to compress more iterations in a week with a more proactive client, than in a month on another engagement. Our multiple distributed teams can work through a higher number of iterations often resulting in better end deliverables.

A very big talent pool (and lower employee turnover)

Recruiting from multiple geographical locations gives us access to a very large talent pool. The result for us is higher quality of new hires. We have formed close bonds with a number of national design institutions and maintain our relationships by presenting guest lectures and workshops. These efforts pay dividends at the end of term during campus placements. We also have a steady flow of interns through our offices and consequently more interested candidates when it comes time to hire new employees.

Anecdotally, we also feel that this also results in lower employee turnover. It could be because of saner working hours due to shared work load and the ability for our team to stay nearer to their family and friends.

Other advantages

Geographically distributed teams tend to have a smaller overlap of upbringing, cultural and religious ethos, educational background, and professional experience. This exposes everyone to greater learning opportunities and exposes them to other cultures and working styles. This creates a healthy creative tension amongst the designers encouraging continual improvement of processes, efficiency and design. It also helps in spreading softer skills, such as Indians respecting deadlines more and Americans learning to not sweat the small stuff.

Conclusion

Creating a distributed design team has been an efficient way to grow our design firm. We have also come across other firms that have a loose network of freelancing professionals who work from different places; however, in these organizations not everything is always hunky-dory. Cultural misunderstandings compounded with poor communication channels can quite easily snowball into an inextricable mess. Managing distributed teams is a difficult task that requires a lot of planning and effort. Only with a tight process, established trust and balanced hiring, will a company be able to realize the true benefits of this approach. In a subsequent blog, we will talk about the best practices we’ve established for managing distributed teams.

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  1. Ankush

    Sep 9, 2011 - 03:54 AM

    You have shown the brighter side of a distributed team. Whereas, I feel the tensions due to global frictions are most of the times too hot for a design process. In other words, it burns out the creative energies and leads to lower qualities in the output.

    Nonetheless I was able to see the other side of the coin through your insights here. Thanks for sharing.

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