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Usability Opportunities in China

Thoughts after a Short Trip to China

Usability is still in its infancy in China. However, many companies have begun to recognize the importance of usability as a competitive advantage. Some have hired U.S. companies to design and implement a user-centered design (UCD) process to fit into their business process. Others have sent employees to various international conferences to get trained on the latest techniques and methods. Many more companies are eager to learn more about UCD processes and practical methods for integrating UCD into their businesses.

In August 2005, I visited two companies in China and gave lectures on the UCD process. In this article, I highlight some questions and challenges raised by the audience during the lecture sessions. These questions reveal opportunities for the usability community to develop practical training programs and consultant services that are targeted better to companies in China. In addition, I found that some questions were the same as those we hear in the West.

Two Chinese Companies

One of the companies I visited is a large technology company in mainland China. The company has recently set up a UCD group under the corporate technology R&D umbrella. Upper-level management is committed to the UCD practice and views usability as a competitive advantage for their products. One challenge that the company faces is how to demonstrate the value of the UCD group to the business units so that they are more willing to support the services provided by the UCD group. Another challenge is how to ensure that the deliverables provided by the group are of high quality and result in positive business impacts.

For this company, I focused my presentation on the challenges faced by UCD practitioners in corporations, techniques to deal with the challenges, and how to work with the development team to effectively achieve results for business. Attendees were usability engineers, graphic designers, and UI designers from the UCD group.

The other company I visited is a mid-sized Hong Kong-based technology company. There are no UCD practitioners in the company. However, the executives of the company had heard about usability and wanted to learn more about usability and UCD practice. For this company, I focused on the concepts of usability, UCD, and human-computer interactions (HCI), the benefits of designing user experiences, and various methods and processes that usability professionals use.

The executives of both companies showed great interest in learning more about making sure that the products in their company were competitive in terms of usability and user experience. They also asked how their companies could practice UCD to benefit their bottom lines.

Following are some of the questions the audiences wanted me to address during my sessions with them.

Questions from the Audience

What needs to be done?

This question came from the executives of the mid-sized Hong Kong company. Should they hire a usability specialist, set up a usability group, hire outside usability consultants, or just train current systems engineers and UI designers? All projects have tight schedules and limited budgets and they want to know how the company could start to improve the usability of their current and future products immediately. They also wanted to know how they could integrate the usability process with their product development process in the long term.

How do you estimate the amount of work needed for UCD activities?

Many UCD practitioners asked how extensive the UCD activities should be and how much time to allocate to the UCD activities to ensure product usability, but also to meet product delivery schedules. Although UCD practitioners have received trainings in various user research methods, they have difficulty deciding which method best fit the needs of particular products.

How do you work effectively with the product team?

An audience member asked: “How do I work with the team so that the team will listen to me?” The UCD practitioners want respect from team members. They feel their training and experience in usability should make their recommendations valuable and should not be overridden by development team members who have more power and authority. Debates are often carried out in design reviews. Some development team members may not think UCD practitioners have enough domain knowledge to make practical recommendations. Sometimes senior management has to resolve the issues. Managers would like to find more efficient and effective ways to improve the design process. They are also looking for experienced usability experts to help their teams make effective design decisions.

How do you make the UCD program sustainable?

The large mainland China company has set up their UCD group under the corporate technology center. They offer UCD services to all business units for free; however, they still face resistance from some business units. These units are not convinced of the benefits of UCD activities and are concerned that they need to add extra development time when working with the UCD group.

How can Western consultants leap over the language barrier?

Many people in China, especially professionals, can speak, read, and write English. However, English is still a second language and most people do not use English daily. For UCD professionals who do not interact with native English speakers often, it is challenging to express their ideas and ask questions about complex topics to Western consultants. To shorten the learning curve, Chinese companies are looking for experienced UCD professionals who can speak both Chinese and English.

Opportunities for the Usability Community

Human factors, HCI, and usability have been widely practiced in Western countries for more than thirty years and experiences gained and lessons learned in the practice have advanced the field tremendously. Most issues raised by the audience of the two Chinese companies are generic issues. The experiences and lessons learned from practicing usability and UCD in corporations in other countries can certainly help Chinese companies to shorten the learning process.

Currently, some large international companies such as Microsoft and Motorola have HCI researchers or UCD practitioners in China. In addition, research institutes and universities such as the Chinese Academy of Science, Beijing Normal University, and Zhe Jian University offer HCI degree programs. However, most home-grown companies lack such trained people and other resources to help make their products more usable and competitive.

Because the number of practitioners is still limited, the challenges faced by Chinese companies present many opportunities for the global usability community in terms of employment, consulting, and training.

Employment Opportunities

As more companies in China accept the concept of usability, there will be more employment opportunities for usability professionals. Overseas Chinese, or people who speak Chinese, with graduate degrees in HCI, usability, human factors, or related fields and several years of corporate experience are especially needed. They are expected to lead key projects, promote usability, and train and mentor young UCD practitioners.

Training Opportunities

Training programs, especially certification programs, will be in demand in China. Chinese companies are more likely to trust people who have advanced academic degrees and professional certifications.

Consulting Opportunities

Consulting opportunities exist for usability professionals to help companies effectively integrate UCD processes into their business processes, promote usability within the company, guide key projects, and mentor UCD practitioners.

Market Research and Usability Testing Opportunities

Many Chinese companies are winning market share in multiple countries. They need help in market research, focus group studies, user needs analysis, and usability testing.

Challenges in Consulting to Companies in China

While there are opportunities to do business in China, there are cultural challenges in addition to the language barrier.

Limited Budgets

While companies are in need of help from external sources, the pricing issue is one of the top concerns, especially for small and mid-sized companies. This is perfectly understandable because of the difference in economic conditions between China and Western countries. A solid discussion of values and benefits of working together is important to set common ground. Understanding the company’s needs, objectives, and measurements of success are also important before discussing the pricing issues.

“Do It Yourself”

Chinese believe in the “do it yourself” philosophy. People are proud if an achievement comes from their own abilities instead of outside sources. The implication is that companies usually seek internal resources first or hire resources in China. If a company decides to hire outside consultants, they expect the consultants to empower them to do the work by themselves in the future.

The Chinese “do it yourself” attitude is a challenge that Western consultants have to face and understand in order to break into the Chinese market. Assessing their needs and communicating not only the values you will bring, but also what you can empower the company to do in the future, can influence their decision to hire you.

Credentials and Networking

Like anywhere else in the world, professionals who have graduated from prestigious schools and have work experience with well-known companies are more valued. Some people told me that if you received advanced degrees and had taught in the Beijing University or Chinese Academy of Science, you would have a better change of being hired by large companies in China. On the other hand, professional networks—who you know in the business—counts, too.

Looking Forward

China has advanced rapidly in all indus-tries, but especially in technology fields. Here, they have skipped the pain of deploying immature technologies and have enjoyed the benefits of more mature technologies—for example, wireless and other communication technologies.

The same trend can be seen in the usability field. The number of usability professionals has grown rapidly in recent years. You meet more and more usability professionals from China at conferences such as CHI, the Human Factors and Ergonomics annual meetings, and the UPA annual meetings. China has also held its own UPA China Annual Meeting every December since 2004.

Through conferences and other venues, UCD practitioners have learned the latest processes, methodologies, and techniques, and some companies have achieved significant results. As the UCD practitioners in China gain more practical experience, they will bring more benefits to companies. More usable products, services, and systems from China will become available to the world. In several senses, China has opened up to the world, and opportunities are there for the global usability professional community.