User-Centered Design and Beyond: How focusing on users can influence public sector initiatives
By now most developers are familiar with the benefits of user-centered design. Because it incorporates end-user feedback into the development and design process as early as possible, the user-centered design process has been embraced by the technical crowd as a way of ensuring the final product is a great fit for users.
Among the less-technical crowd, however, adoption has been a bit slower, which is unfortunate. Apart from its technical benefits, there is much to recommend in user-centered design as a key development methodology for project managers and higher-ups. Nowhere is this more true than in the public sector world, where the diverse array of stakeholders can often pull a project in many different directions.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the reasons why user-centered design is effective for launching new public sector projects. We’ll discuss how it allows stronger adoption from stakeholders and leads to a better chance of success overall.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for adopting user-centered design is that it grounds the development process in quantifiable user data. A typical approach will invite feedback at several key points in the design and development process, starting when requirement are being drafted, and continuing through development, alpha and beta releases, and when the final version is completed.
This empirical approach can be as rigorous as necessary. On one end of the spectrum, there are so-called “hallway surveys” where designers ask a colleague who is unfamiliar with the project to attempt some basic tasks. On the other end, rigorous surveys can be run to collect usability data. In any case, the end result is a quantifiable data set that can be used to guide decision-making and show progress throughout the project lifetime.
Quantifying progress can be especially important in the public sector, where the ability to demonstrate that each successive milestone you achieve is a worthwhile investment of public resources can come in handy. It can also be an avenue for simple, objective comparisons across different projects. In a user-centered approach, the ability to say users responded 15% better to one version of a website versus another revision when surveyed carries a lot more weight than simply having a distant manager say they prefer one version but can’t articulate why.
The numerical data from user feedback studies is a great input to the decision-making process, but it also can be a good way to make sure a new initiative stays focused on its goals. Public projects often are pulled in different directions by many stakeholders, and have to be re-justified on an ongoing basis. Anything from a simple website redesign to total database overhaul can have competing demands from higher-ups and from upset users that make it difficult to ever release a finished product.
A key benefit of user-centered design in this scenario is that it allows you to draw feedback from the final consumers of the project and use that perspective to inform other stakeholders. If you’re worried that your revamp of a survey application is getting stalled, then having a usability study that says the new version allows workers to complete surveys 10% faster can be a key bargaining chip. Multiple studies have shown that software projects that employ user-centered design have higher uptake and are typically more efficient than their predecessors.
Often, you can include stakeholders in this aspect of the measurement process as well. Usability studies and design goals are a great place to get input from multiple sources and consolidate into one key set of goals that everyone is on board with. Because later work uses those common goals and touchpoints as a basis for understanding user behaviour, you can measure progress along the same lines.
In the end, the main justification for user-centered design is simply that it results in better, more successful projects. That’s why it’s become increasingly popular over the past decade and why it will continue to grow.
That makes sense from a design perspective. The goal of user-centered design is to understand how end-users are taking your work and incorporating it into their own processes. By measuring their actions and building off what works, you end up amplifying the best, most productive behaviour. And as a manager, it makes sense as a framework for analysing goals in terms of what matters the most, the end users of your application. To find out more, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org.