Bottom-up standardization

For the past year my team at Ford has been working on a project that involves us visiting the company’s various manufacturing plants across North America, where we’ve been conducting interviews and contextual inquiries with workers. Although we are trying to understand a technology problem that is common to basically all the sites we’ve visited, each one has its own needs, culture, and way of doing things, and each is affected by this technology problem in slightly different ways.

Once our research is turned into a design and that design has been piloted, my team knows there will be some pressure to standardize it across all sites. Meanwhile the various sites each have their own idea of what an ideal solution to this technology problem should be.

Many large organizations I’ve worked for have experienced some version of this same scenario, and it has me thinking about how the success of standardizing any solution depends not only on the solution itself, but on how the process of standardization is approached.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both centralized and localized solutions, but they are typically framed as being in opposition. How can companies break out of this stalemate?

I decided to reframe the situation as something other than a “problem”, in a way that will hopefully be more illuminating. And I took a lesson from several instances where standardization has been achieved with more success.

Understanding a situation as a problem sets up an expectation that you can “solve” it once and for all. If we take our pet solution and try to justify it by overcoming objections, natural human biases will inevitably take over. This is how we end up with the familiar story of leadership ramming an unwanted solution down employees’ throats, or employees avoiding or even sabotaging an unwanted solution rolled out to them by leadership.

It is necessary to deeply understand both sides of the situation. One of the more stimulating things about UX research is getting to hear from different sets of stakeholders, which provides a unique vantage point that I’d liken to stereoscopy. When different sets of stakeholders believe they are in conflict with each other, it can even be like seeing in an extra dimension, almost like cubism.

Calvin and Hobbes goes cubist when Calvin's dad convinced him to see both sides of an issue.
Bill Watterson masterfully illustrates what happens when Calvin sees both sides of an issue.

In my own words, standardization is when you take something that provides benefits in one context and put that same thing into lots of different contexts, with the aim of reaping not only those same benefits over and over again, but additional benefits that come just from having created uniformity.

But it doesn’t always work out this way. Sometimes the other contexts are a poor fit, and often the end users push back, sometimes rightly so. I’d bet everyone can think of some examples of times when attempts to standardize were justifiably unwelcome.

So, what are some strong arguments for and against both standardized or “centralized” solutions and customized or “local” solutions? Below are some I’ve heard over the years:

A table listing pros and cons of both centralized and localized solutions.
I tried to organize this table so pros and cons on the same line mostly corresponded with each other, but really they are in no particular order.

By the way, there is scholarly research backing up some of the items in this table. For example, Farrell et al. published a paper in the 80s in the Rand Journal of Economics about how one of the risks of standardization is it can lock you into an inferior product; their paper has since been cited thousands of times, indicating the enduring salience of that insight.

A side benefit of laying out pros and cons like this is it prompts us to think about the practical and emotional impact of the change so it can be more effectively communicated about when the time comes. And importantly, this exercise decouples our own emotions from whatever solution we ultimately pursue, which helps to make subsequent decisions less prone to biases and blind spots.

With these arguments laid out, it is clear there is no neat easy answer that would please everyone and resolve all the misalignment. It is also clear we are really talking about trade-offs. Whatever the solution, it will need to manage these trade-offs.

Internalizing all this allowed it to become a filter as I absorbed other ideas and examples. It didn’t take long before I stumbled across two that were revelatory.

The first example was from US legal codes. Our system of federalism defines certain responsibilities as those of the Federal government, and leaves others to the states. However, states sometimes have an interest in working from the same set of uniform laws as other states, but in areas outside the proper jurisdiction of the Federal government.

When this happens, I learned, what gets created is called a Uniform Act. These are written collaboratively among different states. There are more than a hundred of them, typically concerning matters related to commerce but sometimes other things like child custody, land use, foreign judgments, controlled substances, and so on. 

The way it works is various state governors appoint members to a body called the Uniform Law Commission, who drafts a copy of whatever act the states will be asked to sign on to. The Commission has no direct legislative power; instead, the acts it drafts only become state laws as each state legislature signs onto them. 

This caught my eye because we are used to hearing about standardization as a top-down thing, but this is essentially a form of bottom-up standardization: using a system of representative government, the people who would be the subjects of standardization get together and decide what it is they’re standardizing to, and then agree to it before it is implemented. And they agree to it because they buy into the idea and think it will work for them. 

How could something like that work for various local sites within large companies? What if there was a technology solution that various sites could opt into? It would require some marketing, in the sense of making sure all the sites knew the system was available, what it entailed, what its benefits were, and how to onboard it, but sites that did make an informed decision to opt in would presumably reap those benefits, without feeling like the solution was foisted on them by ivory tower executives in HQ.

Remember that even an okay system met with enthusiasm by its users is probably going to work better than a perfect system that users feel resentful about.   

The second example was ISO, or the International Organization for Standardization, which oversees the implementation of tens of thousands of technical standards for everything from shipping containers to the light-sensitivity of photographic film. ISO is the reason the nuts you buy at one hardware store match the bolts you might buy at another hardware store—even in another country. Name just about any manufactured product and there’s a good chance there are one or more of these standards in its specifications. ISO standards are at work behind almost every facet of ordinary life and most people don’t realize it.  

But in the last few decades there has been rising controversy over who sets these standards and what they should be. One instance of this involves the increasing share of Chinese manufacturing in the global economy, which has led to a push from China saying they should have a larger seat at the table in developing standards. In an effort to preempt this, national governments worldwide have become more eager to dictate (from the top down) their own standards to whatever manufacturing is within their jurisdiction. 

Advocacy for bottom-up standardization has come from people such as Duff Johnson, Executive Director of the PDF Association, who used that exact term in an article last year in which he said “standards work best for everyone when they are developed openly”, calling for an “organic process”. He recommends that governments engage with industry at the subject matter expert level, creating a win-win in which the government gains expertise, skills, and context, and the industry members can better understand government viewpoints and interests. 

This provides an important perspective on how companies might standardize technology solutions. Executive stakeholders should engage with ground-level employees on the SME level, where each can benefit from exposure to and empathy with the other’s working paradigm. Fortunately, Duff Johnson’s suggestions reflect the way my UX research team is already going about our various projects. 

We have a responsibility to ensure corporate stakeholders understand the SME perspective, and at the same time we have to address the corporate interest in standardization, with its attendant tradeoffs but also undeniable benefits. Our interviews and contextual inquiries are those engagements with subject matter experts, and the insights we collect and synthesize will be shared with corporate stakeholders. So in addition to providing guidelines for the technology designers and developers we work with, this insight about bottom-up standardization represents an opportunity to realize we are forging a bridge between the highest and lowest levels of our company.


Interpreting data

I don’t know where else to put this, so here goes:


I came across that image in a link-dump on a blog I sometimes visit; it was borrowed from someone who borrowed it from someone, etc., and I don’t know who to attribute it to, but I love how the animation elegantly explains the problem of interpreting data, agreeing on facts, etc.

As researchers, we need to triangulate our conclusions with other stakeholders to be sure we aren’t focusing on the wrong patterns. I suppose that speaks to the importance of collaboration with team members, asking the right questions, etc.