Recently, our Minneapolis office designated Wednesdays to be our official Work From Work Day. We did this because, while we all like each other, on any given day only about half of our staff was working in the office. The rest of us were either at home, at a client’s office, or at one of our six other global office locations. Meanwhile, our culture and overall business has never been stronger. As a person of a certain age, this created a cognitive dissonance of sorts for me. In my experience, more team interaction translates to a better culture and deeper client relations.
That’s when I realized that even though we aren’t always in the same room, we’re more collaborative than ever.
Platforms like Skype, Hangouts, Slack, BlueJeans, and others combined with universally-accessible Wi-Fi or cellular connection transcend the constraints of needing to be in the same physical location. This has actually been the case for several years now. So why is the concept of offshore development still problematic? And why is the notion of offshore user experience virtually nonexistent?
The answer is that while demographic and economic trends evolve rapidly and organically, our notions of design and development are anchored in habits and definitions of the last century. The reasons are myriad and mundane, but any student of UX knows that the tyranny of the user shall always prevail. If there is an easier and cheaper path that doesn’t sacrifice quality, the outcome is without question. From Amazon to Uber, this is experiential Darwinism.
And now, Noshore.
The distinction between these words is simply a reflection of what is familiar and what is unfamiliar. Or, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace: There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ”Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks, ”What the hell is water?”
Now, Wallace takes this into far deeper waters but I’m not that good of a swimmer, so we’ll stay in the shallow end of the pool. As UX designers, we sometimes focus too much on the specific problem we’re trying to solve without pulling back to see where we fit as professionals. It’s easy to take for granted the ever-changing reality of our surroundings. Meanwhile, the world itself has also changed; not necessarily for better or worse, just different. The speed of business was once measured in five-year increments. Now, leading organizations are more nimble than ever and have adjusted their organizational structure to enable quarterly increments.
So again, what informs the bias against a distributed workforce? I compare it to the conversation I often have with new managers. Their approach is always the same: hire top talent that knows what to do and requires little oversight. First of all, finding top talent is difficult. Secondly, keeping them is expensive. And if one and two were true, why would they need a manager?
The same can be said in regards to remote teams — it’s perceived to be easier and more effective but, like anything else, it depends on how you do it. However, the economics are inescapable. It’s still challenging to find the right partner, but that’s true regardless of your location. Meanwhile, as UX continues to infiltrate all facets of internal and external needs, there is simply not enough supply to match the anticipated demand.
- 1950 to 1983: the UX profession grew from about 10 people (mainly those early Bell Labs guys) to about 1,000 people — a growth factor of 100
- 1983 to 2017: the UX profession grew from about 1,000 people to about 1 million people — a growth factor of 1,000. (LinkedIn had 1.5 million members in late 2017 who claimed expertise in user experience, usability, or information architecture. While claiming a skill and actually having it are two very different things, many people are not on LinkedIn, especially internationally, so the estimate of 1M UXers is not far off.)
- 2017 to 2050: the UX profession is expected to grow from that current 1 million people to about 100 million people — a growth factor of 100
When it comes to offshore UX, the challenges are more acute. Consumers of technology expect a clean, intuitable, and beautiful user experience. This was once aspirational and the domain of premium brands, requiring months of research and extensive budgets. What was then exceptional is now the minimum requirement for all digital touchpoints, regardless of the brand or budget. So how can mid-level companies with smaller budgets and shorter deadlines deliver on this expectation? Ten years ago, this same challenge existed for our clients on the technology side and was solved with the offshore model. This approach is well understood and commonly accepted and can be adapted to solve modern user experience needs. Additionally, this creates the ability for us to scale more quickly and offer a broader range of services.
The revenue available to fuel this change is also well understood. Traditional agencies are contracting and over $55 billion dollars is now in play.
- Digital work in 2017 accounted for more than half of U.S. agency revenue
- For many agencies, however, that didn’t translate into net gains. U.S. agency revenue grew a sluggish 1.8 percent in 2017, the slowest growth since the ad market emerged from recession in 2010
- Job cuts at ad agencies, weak organic growth, slumping stock prices and a tightening of marketing budgets all point to tumult in the agency business
I don’t mean to imply that all agency revenue will convert to UX engagements. And Jacob Nielsen isn’t implying that in the year 2050 everyone will have a UX title. But I am suggesting that the water is changing. The importance of User Experience is infiltrating every profession at nearly every level, and the need for a shared understanding has never been more important.
It’s our philosophy that User Experience is a shared burden. It’s not the exclusive domain of one group, but rather an integrated effort between architects, designers, and engineers. Offshore was once seen as a barrier to collaboration but, together, we can solve bigger problems regardless of our location. As the world spins faster and grows smaller, it creates new problems with new solutions. Jump in, the water’s fine.