Gina writes:

While here in India, I've done some web design and print design projects for the 2 NGOs that I've worked for (SOVA and SPREAD) as well as for a few other NGOs that have VSO volunteers. When fellow volunteer Sheila asked me if I would consider redesigning the website for Shakti, the organization that she works for, I was confident that I could use what I've learned in the past 2 years to manage the project efficiently and with minimal frustration.

There were aspects that highlighted the specific considerations necessary when working across cultures:

  • Working for free - Based on a negative past experience when working for free, I knew how important it was to clearly define the scope of the work and to be firm about limiting request after request after request for "one last change". I developed various decision points or "gates" after which no changes could be made -- the template was chosen, then look and feel was customized, then navigation was finalized, then content was provided. I was flexible to some extent, but Shakti understood and respected that requests for changes after the "gate was closed" were limited.
  • Working via email - Communicating primarily online is not a preferred method of working for most Indians, who greatly value the personal relationship and face-to-face contact. Fortunately, Sheila was at Shakti helping to manage the project from that end and vouching for my expertise. She and her boss also made the 4-hour trip to Koraput in July, which helped her boss to trust me more and showed me they were serious about the project.
  • Designing for Western and Eastern - The website has varied audiences: other Indian NGOs and international funding organisations. The Indians expect lots of color and don't mind flashing, moving elements. Western viewers prefer more subdued, polished sites. It was interesting to keep both sets of expectations in mind when determining the look and feel. I also had to be firm in my declarations of what was "best practice" in responding to some requests from the boss.
  • Training - Part of the project was a visit to Shakti to conduct updating/maintenance training for the staff. I really enjoyed developing the training materials, trying to meet the needs of 3 people with varying levels of English comprehension and very little knowledge of HTML and basic web design principles. I was proud of what I developed and of my delivery, remembering to speak simply and slowly and check often for comprehension.
  • Free, off-line tools - It goes without saying that Shakti cannot afford to purchase expensive web design software like Dreamweaver. They also are determined not to use the widely-available pirated software, which is respectable. Thus, I needed to find a tool for them to make changes that was free (or very cheap) and easy to use. It also needed to allow for editing off-line, as Shakti's power/Internet situation is extremely unstable. I spent a lot of time evaluating different options and found one that really impressed me.

The goal for a "go-live" date for the website was early September. Of course that deadline is long past. Even so, the site is well on its way to completion.

I was in Rayagada for 2 days this week training the team and was very pleased with their understanding of the concepts. To Shakti staff, thanks for being great students and welcomings hosts. Now I just hope we can get it to a public-ready state in the next 9 days before I leave!