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Working as a Designer in a Global Team

By Janaki Mythily Kumar, SAP User Experience, SAP AG – April 12, 2006 • The definitive version was published in INTERACTIONS, see the copyright note below

Does globalization increase productivity? Does it make companies more profitable? There are obvious cost savings due to salary differences across the world, but when we go beyond this obvious point, we find both benefits and deficits. In this report, I explore the more intangible benefits and drawbacks of globalization from a UI designer’s point of view.

Janaki KumarI am a user interface designer working in California for SAP, a large multi-national company based in Europe. I am part of a broadly distributed interdisciplinary team, working on a strategic project with many interdependencies. My team members work in 6 geographical locations namely Germany, U.S., India, Israel, China and Ireland. My day typically consists of early-morning conference calls with Europe, late-evening conference calls with Asia and working with my local team members in between. In the morning I might have 20-30 email messages from various parts of the world. Some messages are attempts by my colleagues and co-workers to inform me and others on what is going on around the world. Some are messages seeking information from me. I can easily spend two or more hours a day managing my email and responding to messages seeking my response. After this I get down to do my real work – designing, thinking, drawing, and writing.

On the Plus Side

On the plus side, I admit that I love working with colleagues around the world. People from different cultures have different approaches to solving problems. At design time, it is great to get feedback from an angle that I may not have considered. It gives me a global perspective and increases my awareness of being a global citizen. At any point in the day, I roughly know what time it is in Germany, Israel, China and India. Sometimes, globalization even directly increases my productivity. I ask someone in China for some information before I go to bed, and I have a detailed answer when I wake up. No time lost! I love those moments.

On the Minus Side

On the minus side, not all moments are as efficient as I have described above. There are delays in response and communication, and in such cases I might lose a day instead of a few hours. I just have to plan for this and work around it. Similarly, as a UI designer, I am not there to directly answer design questions as they come up. Do I cause delays for others? Or worse, do they work around it by making assumptions? I have to consciously make efforts to be available to avoid these situations. Hence I always carry a mobile phone with email and SMS capabilities.

To be honest, responsiveness is really an individual thing. I have colleagues across the world who are extremely reachable, even at very late hours. However, as a rule, I try not to abuse this, so they will continue to be responsive.

Communication and collaboration can take up a significant chunk of project time. I have heard that each geographic location takes up 25% communication overhead. If this is true, it takes only 4 locations to get to 100%! Where is the time to do the real work?

Management of a globally staffed project is very difficult. Unless there is diligent project planning, activities can get overlooked. It is hard enough to manage projects when your team is staring you right in the face. Having team members across the globe, with different vacation practices and holidays makes project planning that much more difficult. By the time projects are divided into sub projects, sub projects into tasks, and tasks assigned to people, some inter-project dependencies are forgotten or not considered. As a designer, if you are the one talking to development organization(s) and marketing, you might be the first to identify such gaps. I bet this communication overhead goes beyond 25%!

Sprekenze English?

My company’s official language is English and I have to say that most of my colleagues around the world are conversant in it. However, from time to time, there are instances of miscommunication and misinterpretation based on regional differences. For example, American expressions such as “heard through the grapevine” and “piece of cake” don’t translate well literally, and American colleagues have been confused by emails referring to “handy”, which is the German word for cell phones. To avoid this, as a matter of habit, I re-read my emails before pressing the “Send” button, and I enunciate my words during conference calls.

Long Distance Collaboration

As a UI designer, how do you truly brainstorm and conduct design sessions with someone 10,000 miles away via NetMeeting and a telephone line? The best you can do is to take turns presenting and giving feedback. It is difficult to work on an idea together. It is time consuming, and technology gets in the way. Our company has invested in more sophisticated technology, but hardly anyone I know uses it. For instance, we have a large white board that is supposed to take pictures as you draw, but we do teleconferencing so frequently that no one wants to mess with all that clunky technology. And video conference is not really needed for the type of design sessions we want to have. It is just a lot more convenient to pick up the phone and call. Even that can be complicated if there are more than two parties involved and more than two countries. We usually set up an international call-in number and all participants call in from wherever they are. We make it work for us, but we could really use better collaboration tools.

Traveling is an option, although an expensive one. At first traveling can be fun. We get to see and socialize with our colleagues and attach a person’s physical appearance to an email address. We form relationships and connections. In an odd way, subsequent remote communication seems easier after just one face-to-face contact. Traveling for key strategic meetings is good, but we cannot be flying over all the time. It is extremely disruptive to our work and personal lives. It is expensive for the company. And if we travel too much, we spend more time worrying about our baggage arriving along with us, and getting over jet lag, and less time thinking about design details and work goals.

Then comes sleep deprivation. We all complain about it, but those working in a distributed environment on high-pressure projects, feel the need to work around the clock. You have to consciously set time aside for family and personal health, since, any time of the day or night, there is always a team member out there who is happy to work with you when they see you online on IM. The work day never seems to end.

Summary and Suggestions

To summarize, globalization is an inevitable part of our work life and it does offer significant benefits. But working as a UI designer in a distributed environment also poses some unique challenges. Some of these challenges may be addressed by setting up global organizations that are cognizant of the communication and collaborative nature of design work. Here are some suggestions that might help managers setting up global organizations to alleviate these challenges:

  • Consider the communication overhead of a distributed environment and factor that into the equation while calculating the total cost savings of globalization. Granted, it is not simple to calculate these hidden costs, but being aware that they exist will make estimates more realistic.
  • Co-locate team members who need to collaborate more closely. If this is not possible, acknowledge that these persons are shouldering the additional communication cost and add that into the project plan.
  • Avoid splitting projects between more than two time zones. It becomes increasingly difficult to schedule meetings during the normal waking hours of team members where there are more than two distant time zones involved.
  • Designate a person to make sure the inter-dependencies are not overlooked. This person could be responsible for the overall project across locations. This will not be an easy job, and there is a danger that the wrong person on the job could exacerbate the situation by adding yet another layer of bureaucracy and no value. However, if this person is knowledgeable, competent and motivated, it might minimize things from falling through the cracks, and ease some of the communication burden off of the other team members.

We designers have always built bridges and made connections as part of our jobs. We routinely translate between user needs, marketing requirements, technology, and product functionality. Globalization adds just another dimension to this collaborative endeavor. With enough flexibility, creativity and realistic planning, we can find ways to work seamlessly with our colleagues, regardless of whether they are located across the hallway or across the oceans.

This is just the start of a conversation. There is more to be said on this topic. Do you have a globalization story to tell? Please send an email to janaki.kumar@sap.com.

 

Reference

© ACM, (2006). 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 INTERACTIONS, {Volume 13, Issue 2 March + April 2006} http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1116715.1116734

 

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