A recent commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of CapTech recommends that organizations that undertake digital transformation projects rely on onshore/nearshore IT partners if they choose to outsource the work.
For digital transformation, "onshore/nearshore capability is a must - whether from purely onshore/nearshore firms or global firms with onshore/nearshore capability - to counter communication and quality issues associated with geographic distance," the study states.
That's particularly good advice for projects involving customer experience (CX), which clearly lie in the digital-transformation category.
Work performed within CX - unlike much of the work performed by offshore IT firms - doesn't lend itself to commoditization. As a rule, offshore service providers tend to excel at repeatable processes or procedures that don't require specialized skill sets; in other words, activities that can be commoditized.
For a variety of reasons, CX activities can't be commoditized or performed offshore. For example, CX projects call for intensive one-on-one customer research. They also require usability testing with customers to validate or repudiate proposed designs and interfaces. These interactions must be conducted in the customer's environment. Designers need to be able to communicate directly and work iteratively with the business in order to create designs that truly support the brand's strategy. In addition, CX projects call for a thorough understanding of the customer's culture and of relevant trends taking shape within it.
It's difficult to create an engaging customer experience without first understanding the customer. That takes research. You need to meet one-on-one with your customers, conducting discovery sessions that help understand customer intentions, needs and wants, and how the customer might (or might not) be able to use a given product or service. Many of these sessions are interactive conversations that take place in the customer's home or workplace.
Conducting research of this kind isn't feasible when the researchers and customers are thousands of miles apart. Language and cultural barriers only heighten the challenge.
A crucial part of the design process involves testing ideas or concepts with current and potential users. Usability testing is best conducted in the user's environment, where it's possible to observe actual behavior, verbal as well as non-verbal. In this setting, a researcher might notice, for example, that the user of a newly designed mobile app is pausing from time to time, possibly because the person has found some aspect of the design confusing. Non-verbal cues of this kind can lead the design team to make significant improvements to the app.
Yet some firms send usability tests off to a pool of people and ask them to run through the tests off-site and then provide written feedback. While this approach can be successful in exposing high level deficiencies, it doesn't give designers the full range of insights they need in order to ensure exceptional user/customer experience. As is the case with user research, usability testing requires proximity to the user.
High-level skill sets and communication
The creation of effective websites and web and mobile applications requires that designers understand what the brand is trying to accomplish, how the business is positioning its product or services in the marketplace and how competitors are positioning similar products or services. That's a high-level skill set that can't be commoditized.
It's also vital that the design team be in constant communication with the business team, so they can engage in an open, iterative dialog throughout the design process. That's a tall order when these teams are separated by 10 or 12 time zones.
Many companies are bringing work back onshore because of such problems. The Forrester study, based on a survey of 300 U.S.-based business and IT leaders, notes that two-thirds of those using offshore services have brought previously completed work back onshore due to a "poor project experience." Among factors cited by survey respondents: "poor communication with offshore staff" (36 percent) and "difficulty managing across time zones" (29 percent).
Understanding the culture
Certainly a designer from another culture can do work that meets the needs of U.S. consumers. But the designer may have to cross a great cultural divide in order to get there. The expectations and trends that influence consumer behavior in one culture may be dramatically different from those at work in another. There's no doubt that being a part of a given culture makes it easier to understand and design for that culture.
The average lifespan for the design of a web or mobile app used to be two or three years. That has decreased to as little as 18 months. In part, that's because consumer expectations are changing more rapidly; in part, it's because the way brands present themselves is changing more rapidly.
Updating designs in order to keep pace with a fast-changing landscape requires an understanding of what's happening in the customer's culture or subculture, what trends are at work, and how customer expectations are changing. That's also a high-level skill set that can't be commoditized.
The Forrester study found that improving customer experience is a "high or critical priority" for 73 percent of U.S. businesses.
I expect that figure will continue to increase. A key reason is that many U.S. businesses are struggling to keep their own products and services from becoming commoditized. Competition and technology disruption are forcing businesses to re-think how they engage with customers.
Offering a compelling customer experience helps businesses differentiate themselves from the competition while winning greater consumer recognition and utilization of their products and services. That can help pull a brand back from the brink of commoditization.
To deliver a compelling customer experience, there's no substitute for an onshore service provider that can work directly and iteratively with the business and its customers and that has the high-level skill sets, communication capabilities and cultural awareness to deliver results.
 Onshore/Nearshore Services Thrive In The Age Of The Customer: Selecting The Right Partner For Your Company's Digital Transformation, May 2016. A commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of CapTech. Base: 300 IT and business professionals of U.S. enterprises with 1000 or more employees responsible for decisions related to third-party service providers.