User needs and common mistakes

If you’re working in UK Government on a digital project, you’re (hopefully) familiar with the Government Digital Service Design Principle #1 – “Start with Needs – user needs not Government needs“.

There’s really no more important motto than this one in the GDS lexicon – print it out big, stick it on the wall, tattoo it on your arm if necessary. Your citizens, people, users, claimants, taxpayers – call them what you will – are the people you’re ultimately building stuff for, and you need to listen to them big time. Get to understand what they do and think, and you’ll have a much better chance of making digital things that they will use, perhaps actually want to use and will keep on using.

Uniquely, do this bit right, and you should then be able to save these people lots of money. They can then spend the money you save on hospitals, cheaper beer, houses, submarines or whatever else the people they’ve chosen to spend their money want to do with it.

And it’s fair to say, that although many parts of Government in the past have done nothing but talk to their users (think massive call centres, networks of job-centres, MPs surgeries, lots of hospitals and doctors etc,etc), they haven’t always produced services where they have really listened effectively at the start or as importantly had a continued dialogue with the user the whole way through.

Things are definitely improving though, and in many areas the “user needs” mantra is starting to permeate.

Some words of caution though – don’t forget that at the start you most likely won’t/can’t know actually the entirety of all of the user needs, and as importantly you should be comfortable to start with an imperfect view of your user needs.

If you’re waiting for the A-Z of user needs, to then turn into beautifully cut user stories, then you may well be heading back to the land of the waterfalls where all the requirements are mapped out in nicely typed documents before you cut a line of code, the cost is agreed and the plan finessed to deliver at 5:25pm on Friday 18th November. Only to find of course that you didn’t understand the requirements or had the wrong requirements in the first place, you’ll need to do more work to fix them, this’ll blow the cost – but hey, the plan was a work of extreme optimism from your project manager anyway – so let’s slip it out into the new year. Probably.

So yes, start with enough user needs, work out what to build first based on what you feel you know – but acknowledge where the weaknesses in your assumptions are, and – vitally – keep checking and gathering more user needs as you go. This of course is GDS Design Principle #5 – “Iterate, then iterate again“. You must include the users in your iteration. Period.

You also may find you have a view of user wants, not actually user needs.

There’s an old adage attributed to Henry Ford –

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

which I think has a lot of currency (although there’s a great discussion here  of how in fact he never said it and it bit him in the tail in the medium term). Innovation is important and often you need to go beyond just meeting requests, to imagining something quite different – albeit something that still meets their needs.

This of course is much harder – but it’s important to consider that this also is what earns the big money, not just doing the job, but doing an exceptional job.


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