Are real people at the heart of your digital agenda?

Members of non-government organisations learning how to meet the digital needs of their communities at an OpenUp-hosted workshop in Cape Town.

There’s a slow realisation among Jamaican organisations that website/app/insert-technology-of-choice-here “users” are living, breathing human beings. And as our society gets more digital, more is at stake when we don’t make room for humanity in our projects.

This challenge is not unique to Jamaica. I got a chance to externalise this recently when I ran a workshop on user experience for our fellow non-profit OpenUp in Cape Town, South Africa. It was an incredible learning experience, part of a work trip that included time in Tanzania and Uganda for another project. OpenUp had just started a massive three-year project: creating an open budget data portal for South Africa’s National Treasury, their equivalent of Jamaica’s finance ministry.

Each member of the OpenUp team was genuinely passionate about their particular speciality — be it programming, data or storytelling — and more importantly, they were just as invested in what each of those specialities could achieve together, despite differing perspectives and priorities. It was also impressive to see the level of buy-in they had from their government client. South Africa is regularly rated among the top 3 countries in the world for budget transparency; their National Treasury has even experimented with things like open procurement.

I’m yet to see a similar level of support in any public entity here — though current initiatives, such as the eTendering system, suggest the Jamaica Government is moving in right direction.

That commitment to openness in data is something that can be mirrored in design: caring enough about people to prioritise access and usability. Lack of consideration for human needs shows in the products we launch, when often, despite the introductory fanfare, the public reception is “meh”.

There are a number of reasons our products lack this consideration.

Sometimes organisations think it’s enough to just ask people what they want, and take their responses too literally. Some organisations might only consider the actual needs of a very narrow set of humans, such as those in the C-suite, and make assumptions about the needs of others…such as the customers! Some organisations don’t realise their software engineers are for problem-solving, not just building on spec. Too many teams are building products based on untested assumptions, with challenging deadlines and insufficient resources.

Most importantly, I think we forget that creating digital projects is not like constructing a road. Whereas the latter is a fairly linear process with most of the planning done upfront, understanding user needs is a continuous process, requiring user feedback, testing, tweaking, and sometimes revamping, event after a product has been launched.

User research is so vital, and so telling in its absence. Consider the following questions: Who are your users? Are you solving the problem most important to them? How are they influencing the direction of your work? When was the last time you checked if you were still on the same page as your users? These are just some of the questions that teams committed to addressing real user needs should be constantly asking themselves.

At SlashRoots, throughout our process, we make sure there’s a clear link between the client’s goals, the needs of the end user, and products and services under development.

Think about it like this: a good tailor doesn’t just rely on the patterns for your suit, and knowing how to sew. They take your measurements at each stage of the suit’s creation. With each new layer or part, they measure again, using the opportunity to make adjustments and get your feedback. The tailor understands that as the suit comes together, your understanding about how you want the suit to fit will evolve — sometimes for reasons we don’t want to admit!

That’s good user research in action, a strong focus on user needs to ensure you’re doing the right things to achieve a desired effect.

Compared to the suits of a careful tailor, too many digital products being created today feel like those suits borrowed from a slightly smaller friend: they don’t quite fit and you have to bend over backwards to make it work. In the worst cases they come apart at the seams, just when you need it most.

The next time you’re creating a product or service, make sure you’re taking the time to understand what your users need. Build a great suit!