Offshoring stumbles on usability issues

With offices in Toronto, Moscow, Brussels, Belgium and United States, Dmitri Buterin, president of Bonasource Inc. isn’t a stranger to issues facing companies with offshore development projects.

For several years, the Web development company has been involved in development projects around the globe with a focus on e-business applications such as information portals, employee intranets and project management systems.

Touting the business benefits of offshore development, including quick access to the right skills, ROI and turnover rates,Buterin said ensuring that the process remains user-friendly is an area that still faces some roadblocks.

“Offshore development and usability are two major trends,” Buterin said. “They are not easily reconciled, but they can, and should be reconciled.”

Buterin made the comments at a meeting of the Toronto Usability Professionals’ Association (TUPA) last month. TUPA is a 100-member strong group of people employed in a variety of fields that promote and advance the development of usable products.

Issue such as designing interfaces at a distance, working with individuals who don’t speak English, cultural differences and the fact that usability “isn’t recognized as it should be around the world,” are barriers that still face proponents of user-friendly software and offshore development projects, he said.

By addressing the issues up front and building usability into the development process, “not only into the testing stage but also into the analysis and design phase,” companies will be able to marry the trend of usability and offshore development, Buterin explained.

Daniel Ponech, information design instructor at the University of Toronto and also a teacher in Usability and User Interface Design at Centennial College, said awareness of usability requirements have been lacking somewhat until now.

“Finding out what the users need,” learning functionality requirements and simply asking what the users want can be as simple as ensuring that the user-interface contrast isn’t hard on the users eyes, Ponech said.

Providing a voice to the users and ensuring that both the on and offshore development teams work together is the goal of the offshore development model used at Bonasource, Buterin explained. Having small, frequent releases of the software every few weeks is an important element in that model. “We get feedback as we go along and each release doesn’t necessarily add more functionality,” he said, adding that each release deals with usability issues in smaller portions.

“We get feedback as we go along and each release doesn’t necessarily add more functionality,” he said, adding that each release deals with usability issues in smaller portions.

The company uses instant messenger programs, online chat programs, Net meeting and an extranet site to communicate across the borders.

“A very important point is not to just describe what the system should do, but why the system should do it,” Buterin said.

Good recruitment methods and implementing visual prototyping are also ways to improve usability on offshore projects, he added.

Murraay Sanders, managing partner at Mississauga, Ont.-based Interpix Design Inc., a consulting company that focuses on user interface architectures, said it’s important to remember that Bonasource’s offshore model targets specific, and somewhat larger companies, that might have access to more resources.

“It depends on the project and it also depends on the sophistication of the project,” he explained.

Sanders also said there are endless cultural issues that still need to be overcome when working with projects that are sent offshore before usability and offshore software development will go hand-in-hand. For example, women in western society might hold management positions and find themselves working with male programmers that aren’t accustomed to working for the opposite sex.

“The industry is still immature,” he said. “There may be lower costs involved, but it might also take four or five times to get it right.”

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