World Usability Day requires a website for an international audience, produced by an international volunteer team on a small budget. The day itself is about raising people’s awareness of the fact that today’s technology, products, and services are simply too difficult and not accessible to everyone. When this year’s WUD Web team was formed early in the year, we knew we had a powerful brand but also that we would have powerful challenges, some of them related to those same technologies, products, and services.
The challenges and issues that arise when people work together from diverse parts of the world are common to many global teams, and the lessons learned in the process of creating the global team and platform can be carried from World Usability Day to other projects. The steps performed during a user-centered design process are well documented elsewhere (including recent issues of this magazine). This article concentrates on the special challenges faced and bested by the WUD Web team:
- Geographic separation of the teams and issues arising from working in different time zones
- The small team, which covered many disciplines
- The small budget, which required that we maximize everything we did
- Internationalization and accessibility requirements
- Finding ways to measure success and plan for the future
The Challenges of Geographic Separation
Interdisciplinary teams are widely considered to be central to the success of complex professional projects, but building and holding together such a team is never easy. The WUD Web team included experts from the usability and accessibility, computer engineering, information technology, education, and marketing fields. Add to this diversity several major locations ( Sydney, Australia; Auburn, Alabama, USA; and Bellingham, Washington, USA) and we had another level of difficulty. The team comprised:
- In Sydney, Australia, Different Solutions (http://www.different.com.au), the agency supporting the design and development effort. This team was led by Raymond van der Zalm and was supported by Robbie Sheppard for front- and back-end development, Jesse Grimes as experience designer, and Craig Rozynski as art director.
- In the USA, the website committee volunteers provided design, development, and testing direction and support for the project. This group was led by Daniela Marghitu (website committee chair, based in Auburn, Alabama) and was supported by Aaron Garrett, Kelly Price (also from Auburn), and Steven Wiens ( Bellingham, Washington).
The geographical separation meant that most of the communication was done via email, telephone, and chat, but to add to the mix there was the complication of vastly different time zones (up to seventeen hours apart). Therefore, at the beginning of the project, we spent some time setting up structures and controls in hopes of overcoming these known pitfalls. We chose to make use of several free collaboration tools now available on the Web. These included:
- The BaseCamp collaborative project management tool from 37signals (www.basecamphq.com). This was used to keep track of to-do tasks, milestones, and collaborative work on documents. It was also used to keep track of email discussions and to track bug and feature requests.
- Skype (www.skype.com). Skype provided chat functions and allowed us to make free internet telephone calls and small team conference calls.
- A free conference calling program (freeconferencecall.com). When we needed a larger conference call than was possible with Skype, we used this free conference calling facility. On this service, individuals may need to pay for long distance service, but there is no overhead or need to schedule calls far in advance.
Keys to Success
The 2005 WUD website was a successful first attempt at a worldwide event website. This year, we built on this success by specifically targeting key objectives that the Core Committee had identified:
- Provide an affordable, easy-to-use, content management system and event management tool to facilitate global networking
- Use the site to recruit event coordinators and local volunteers prior to WUD and offer them resources to execute their events.
- Provide information and promote activities around the world to the public and media prior to World Usability Day.
- Showcase what was happening around the world on 14 November, for example, international and local events, webcasts, podcasts, news, sponsors, articles of interest, interviews, local contacts, reading material, photo journals.
- Build a site that itself showcased best practices in Web usability and accessibility.
As with all non-profit projects, the budget was small but the scope of work significant, and its success largely depended upon the generosity of its volunteers and the team putting in that little bit extra to make it work.
Accessibility and Internationalization
The site needed to be highly accessible—to be viewable across the widest possible variety of platforms by people with differing vision abilities, such as low or no vision (requiring the site to be navigable by screen readers) or people with low-contrast color deficiencies. At the same time, the site still needed to be vibrant, professional, and engaging for all users.
English was the official language used for communicating among the World Usability Day Web team members, event organizers, and users. It was surprising to discover that, on both technical and non-technical levels of communication, there are different meanings and even different spellings of the same English words. For example, some team members were using “organize, organizing, organizers,” while others were using “organise, organising, organisers.” These differences required the team to reach a consensus on spellings and meanings for certain words. Communicating solely via phone, webcast, and email was also a major challenge. Body language is truly an important part of communication among humans!
We also needed to address multiple languages and times of day. The content management system allowed pages of the site to be presented in various major foreign languages: English, French, German, Hebrew, Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The World Usability Day Charter was translated into eight languages and a Web page was developed for each translation. Based on feedback obtained from Chinese event organizers, we had to develop two separate Web pages for the Chinese, using both simplified and traditional characters.
The official time of the World Usability Day central website was GMT . However, the information for each event included the time zone of its geographic location as well as a “What time does this start for me?” link. This link went to a website that helped users determine their local time for an event of interest.
Tolerance and inclusiveness are always tough challenges facing multicultural global teams. Cultural and religious background can obviously affect even the most professional individuals’ attitude and behavior:
- Selecting dates and times of the WUD Web team meetings to accommodate everybody’s national and religious holidays and cultural traditions was not always easy. It took a lot of professionalism, mutual respect, and consideration among the team members to maximize the attendance on dozens of working conference calls.
- We learned that moving meeting times to different parts of the day helped make each part of the team feel that their needs were being considered and that no one part of the team always had to stay up late or get up early. (For a multiple time-zone date and time planning tool, see timeanddate.com/worldclock/meeting.html.)
Using appropriate professional language (across gender and age) and avoiding regional and/or national language differences was sometimes a challenge. For example, in the Northeast U.S., we recently had a severe problem with a bug called a “tick.” It is found in long grass and its bite can cause Lyme Disease, a debilitating illness. Meanwhile, in Australia, it’s very common to say “tick boxes” instead of “check boxes”; for example, “you can tick this box” instead of “you can check this box,” as in “If you are having problems specifying the location of your event using either method above, you can tick this box to request assistance from an event administrator.”
Measuring Success and Planning for the Future
With 225 events (including thirty webcasts) across forty countries and five continents, outstanding media coverage, and great feedback from organizers and volunteers, World Usability Day 2006 and its website were deemed a huge success. Just between 1 and 22 November, more than fifty thousand visitors browsed more than one hundred thousand Web pages on the World Usability Day 2006 website using more than sixty languages. By these measures, the project team certainly met their goals.