I thought I’d take a few minutes to talk about the outsourcing trend that has taken hold in so many industries and how it affects usability in information systems. Of course I may be a bit biased since I am part of the group whose potential jobs are being shipped overseas, but as with other issues in life I think it is possible to get past those personal biases to look at the issue from many perspectives. In this case I think we need to stand back and ask why we would want to move our designers overseas. What value is to be gained and what is lost in the process?
Usability and user experience design is part science and part art. It requires a great deal of knowledge, understanding, and attention to detail. It requires interaction with real users for testing and information gathering. And it requires that usability people be part of the design process. As much as we might like to if we separate code from design we are doing something wrong. Code is written to perform functions that help users complete tasks. It must be tied to the interface so that everything runs smoothly. Creating software is an intricate, iterative design process and usability designers must work closely with many other team members throughout the process to ensure the users’ needs are truly being met.
Cheap programmers in other countries are removed geographically, but the Internet shortens that distance considerably. They are also removed by language, culture, and many other factors that affect usability of applications. Interestingly, I think this same argument can hold up for work done in the U.S. and exported to other countries. Our finely crafted interfaces can get destroyed when Asian or other character sets are stuck in them. I’m not speaking in absolutes, but I think it is important to explore how short sighted, greedy executives can act contrary to the interests of a company. By breaking up the design team, outsourcing coding tasks to distant programmers they are risking the usability of the applications they are creating. This can lead to lost productivity in the design process and for users of the applications. There are real costs to outsourcing expertise and talent that go beyond a programmers salary.