Designing for the cultural 'other' (was Ethnographicresearch methods)

4 Aug 2005 - 10:03am
657 reads
Marc Rettig

Thank you, Anirudha. I enjoyed your post. A couple of comments....

> Marc: ...U.S. companies conducting field work in India and/or China. They
[employed] local people to use as researchers.... Which I thought was
helpful if less than ideal.

> Anirudha: Just curious: what do you exactly mean by 'less than ideal'.

You anticipated my reasons in your response. Ideally a team of mixed
disciplines and cultures would be situated in the culture for which they
were designing, with open channels of communication and support between
themselves and the stakeholder parts of their company. In the case I was
talking about, the project was exploratory -- looking for opportunities.
Which is to say, speculative, and considered too early to merit such a large

Short of locating a whole team in say, India, it seemed to me very important
that team members at least spend time there. Not as tourists, but as guided
participant-observers, as immersed as possible. Not living in hotels, for

> Marc: American middle-class white guys just can't see through local
lenses unless they've been steeped in the local world.

> Anirudha: For one, I don't think it is a good idea to hire all 'American
middle-class white guys' on the project. [followed by excellent reasons why]

I completely agree with the points you made in response to this. We think

But there is a non-trivial management challenge. It's difficult enough to
manage collaboration and quality when a team is homogenous. Add distance,
language, cultural and time-zone issues, and you risk canceling the would-be
advantages of team diversity. Which is another reason I believe the ideal is
for the team to be diverse, and located in the same place. As you shift from
that ideal, you add risks, management challenges, and communication issues.
It is always, eventually, a matter of tradeoffs between quality, time, and

And thank you for the plug for your students, and mention of the
collaborative project you are involved with. I have been aware of the
National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, but I did not know about IIT. The
course blog you pointed to is fun.

I recently learned about a project called "Base of the Pyramid," sponsored
by the Institute of Design, IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology), in
Chicago. They are partnered with Human Factors International in India. There
are Indians on both sides of the ocean, some good design talent and good
hearts involved.

> Anirudha: We believe that development of products (particularly
interactive products) by global teams for far away cultures is a reality.
But our current tools and techniques are not sufficient to do this well....

I visited Bangalore and Mysore this past January, and met a number of people
who work in outsourcing firms. I was intrigued to learn that these firms are
experiencing a rising demand from U.S. clients for usability and design
services. There are people in India doing design and usability work for U.S.
end-users, without having been to the U.S. It's the reverse of what we here
often think of as the "cross-cultural" challenge. What a world.


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Marc Rettig
Fit Associates
marc at

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