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Doing less by focusing on user needs

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Design, Service design, User research

User needs are hard.

They’re hard to work out, pin down and express clearly.

Normally you can’t figure out what they are without talking to your users. Yet when you do, they won’t usually tell you what they need – at least not in so many words. Interpreting people’s experiences, context and constraints is a skill. So, too, is figuring out what they need.

User needs are also easy to mistake for other things. They can start to sound like business requirements, stakeholder wishes or even simply things a user wants. They become easy to dismiss as awkward obstacles to delivering something ‘that does at least do the job’. And they’re easy to negotiate away when they get ‘balanced against vital operational requirements’.

If we find any of those things are happening, we probably haven’t got a good picture of what user needs really are. Which means we aren’t seeing how plainly absurd it is to settle for making things that don’t fulfil them.

A user need is...

A user need is something that a person has to get done. The person might be a citizen, they might be at work, or be working in government. Their need is there regardless of what existing system they might have to use. That’s just the current tool and it might not be helping.

They might not even really want to do it. Like paying a bill, getting a licence, or finding out we're stopping them from doing something. But because of their situation, and possibly a deliberate policy (not just the existing system) that’s in place, they need to do it.

An image of 2 Swiss Army Knives. The first is complicated with many tools, the second is much simpler with just a few
A website can include all kinds of bells and whistles, but government services should meet user needs - nothing more, nothing less

User needs are not...

User needs are not:

  •      giving users what they ask for (like easier ways to fill in the current form)
  •      what ‘we’, as people in government, want to get them to do (like read and understand our guidance)
  •      in conflict with stopping people doing bad or prohibited things – hopefully those aren’t things that they need to do
  •      optional extras, bells, whistles or gold-plating – quite the opposite

They’re essential activities and information.

It’s boiling down services to the minimum necessary to give people what they need to get something done. No more.

But the minimum may differ from what the current service or system makes them do. It’s probably less. It may involve doing the hard work to make things simple. It should make a service quicker, simpler and cheaper (to use and probably to build too).

Another way to put it is that user needs are about getting done only what’s needed.

The goal of meeting user needs can sometimes get sidelined when the pressure is on to get something (even anything) working and out of the door and ‘delivering value to the business’. But we can avoid building another costly, wasteful, difficult to use service if we keep calling out anything that isn’t focused on getting done only what users need.

User needs aren’t optional extras.

Let’s turn the telescope around.

When we get them right, they’re the irreducible core of what any service is there for.

And that’s what we all need.

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