Lost in Translation: Communicating the Subtleties of Design across Borders

Early in my design career, I walked into my first meeting with a new team as they held a videoconference with developers from an office in China. I was ready for a new challenge and followed my passion for mobile design, moving from web-based projects to mobile applications. In one way it was a small move—from one side of a San Francisco office to the other. In another way it was a big leap into mobile design and cross-border collaboration. I was eager to get involved and to learn more about what it means to collaborate in these unique situations.

I quickly learned how much stress international collaboration can put on a team. Our daily routine included a scrum call in the evening (Pacific Time) to catch the developers in China at the start of their workday. I recall the feeling of tension building in the room as it got late and discussions moved to topics such as expectations, miscommunications, and missed deadlines.

Over the next few months I watched frustration build as team members—UX designers and developers—struggled to communicate the subtleties of design across borders. Long email chains began to fill inboxes, videoconferences went late into the evenings, and iterations and revisions seemed never-ending. The project finally shipped and it was a success. I learned a lot from my first cross-border collaboration, and have applied the lessons learned to subsequent projects. Despite the obvious language obstacles, my colleagues and I felt that the communication issues with our team in China arose from cultural differences and failure to bond prior to working together.

The following year I was again part of an international collaboration when my local team was paired with teams in Canada and the UK, tasked to create a new mobile application. We looked closely at our design process and made changes based on what we’d learned from the previous project. These adjustments, coupled with the fact that we shared the same language and were from similar cultures, allowed us to overcome the shortcomings of the first collaboration. As a result, the second was a much more successful and enjoyable experience.

Following the second project, and in consideration of all that I have learned, I can make a number of recommendations to teams who are considering, or getting ready to begin, a cross-border collaboration.

Bond in Person

My San Francisco-based team had experienced a real disconnect with the team in China primarily due to distance, and we didn’t want that to happen again. In the second project, we organized to meet in person. Team members from Canada traveled to our office in San Francisco to officially kick off the project. Working together in person, bonding over meals and outings, and getting to know one another on a personal level helped establish a great atmosphere for teamwork. We learned that this was an integral first step in a successful collaboration.

Hold a Daily Scrum

After the team returned to their home offices, we maintained close ties through daily scrum calls and videoconferencing. The latter made our conversations more personable as it allowed us to observe facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures.

Our daily scrum calls provided transparency, encouraged open flow of communication across disciplines, and enabled the team to align their efforts at the start of each day. Remote and local team members actively participated in product discussions and we were as productive as if we were all sitting in the same room.

Set Clear Expectations and Milestones 

Jhilmil Jain and Catherine Courage noted in their article, “Global Design Teams: Managing Distributed Teams Effectively in UX 13.1, “The larger and more distributed the team, the more important it is to identify objective metrics of success and get everyone to internalize the value of these metrics. Doing so will facilitate working together toward the same goals, and cultural perspectives will be less challenging.”

To avoid mid-project confusion and misunderstanding, my team set clear expectations and milestones at the start of our project with Canada and the UK. This made a huge difference. Team members were able to set realistic expectations, meet and beat deadlines, and communicate issues more effectively. This process was streamlined by our use of daily scrums.

Explain Design Changes

Another challenge we experienced was communicating the subtleties of design across borders. This is especially challenging when there are multiple cultures and languages involved.

Traditionally, we had added documentation at the end of the design process in the form of design specifications, which were given to developers. We realized that for distance collaboration we would need this level of detail throughout the design process, so we thoroughly annotated all of our designs from the start. We documented the goals and objectives of each iteration and included clear and detailed rationale for each revision.

Pair up with a Remote Teammate

Communication between designers and developers can be challenging enough when they’re in the same office, but it is even more so when they’re in different offices in different parts of the world.

We alleviated the effects of the latter by pairing up with remote teammates: in my case, a co-designer. The onsite designer worked closely with developers to explain the details of the design and the desired experience, and oversaw implementation. This helped reduce long email chains, long videoconference sessions, and other communication challenges.

Streamline Feedback

Giving and receiving feedback at a distance can be difficult. Initially, we included feedback sessions as part of our daily scrum. Everyone participated. But as the team grew, this forum became more difficult to manage. Designers, developers, and product managers all contributed unique opinions and feedback on the design.

As a result, feedback was neither concise nor actionable, and the confusion and lack of direction cost the team vital time. To be more effective, we began to run feedback sessions with smaller groups. We consolidated the feedback and then held videoconference calls to discuss and decide together how to handle each suggestion.

Being willing to pick up the phone at the right time is also important. Disagreement is part of a healthy collaboration, but if things get tense or there is a misunderstanding, a videoconference is likely your best bet for a quick and easy resolution. Being able to communicate face-to-face breaks down defense mechanisms and helps both sides see things from the other’s perspective.

Enjoy the Collaboration

The processes and communication techniques described above have helped make my cross-border collaboration experiences enjoyable instead of stressful. The experience has also helped me learn to adapt. As Jain and Courage stated, “There is no doubt that working with remote teams comes with a unique set of challenges. To be successful you must embrace the situation.”

The changes my team made allowed us to fully embrace our collaborative experiences and to view them as unique opportunities. I now look forward to my next international project and to learning and growing with new teammates around the world.

Us Versus Them: Distance Makes a Difference

When a team has a strong face-to-face work process, it can be hard to include remote colleagues—whether they are around the world or just a few blocks away. Whitney Taylor’s story of learning how to bridge geographical and cultural distance shares the experiences of one team. Whitney and her colleagues are not alone in facing the challenges of distributed teams. And with a problem this common, researchers can’t be far behind.

A recent research article by Privman, Hiltz, and Wang looked at the dynamics of distributed teams to learn whether they could work as effectively as those located together. In their interviews and surveys, they found many of the same problems Whitney’s team experienced:

  • Working in different time zones makes it harder to have quick, casual conversations.
  • Communication channels are not all the same and misunderstandings are easier over email.
  • It’s easy to fall into a habit of thinking of your immediate colleagues as “us” and remote team members as “them.”

It makes sense that all of these problems can lead to frustration, confusion, and wasted time—less effective work all around. But, can “us versus them” become one big “us?” The researchers focused on teams that were rated as highly effective, looking for insights into how they overcame these challenges. Their recommendations reflect the solutions Whitney’s team devised, the suggestions from Jhilmil Jain and Catherine Courage on managing global teams, and the experiences reported in interviews with practitioners around the world by Whitney Quesenbery and Daniel Szuc:

  • Be clear about goals and responsibilities.
  • Make sure everyone has equal access to information.
  • Respect cultural differences; provide training when necessary.
  • Be creative about managing time zone differences.
  • Use technology to add social interaction to team communications.

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Ed.

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