Often, project owners or content creators (sometimes the same person) feel they intuitively understand their audience and will make assumptions based on this knowledge, only to be surprised when introducing new content or features has a negative impact.
As an example, users have become increasingly disillusioned with Facebook recently, largely due to the revelations of how it uses and abuses our data.
Facebook is a perfect illustration of a digital business putting its own objectives (making profit) above the needs of its users (privacy). And it's having a hugely negative impact.
So how do we go about creating a digital product that works both for an organisation and for its users?
Simple; spend more time on analysis before jumping into production. Challenging and validating (or invalidating) our assumptions via a thorough discovery process will give us a clear understanding of why a project is necessary, before decisions are made about how it should work or what it should look like.
Here's a quick rundown of how we do that at Kind.
Start with strategy
When there isn't enough time allocated to analysis and discovery, it could be acceptable to simply read the objectives as stated in the project brief or whatever strategy documents exist. However, it is also necessary to ensure that the documented objectives and strategy are fully embedded throughout the organisation and aren't just public-facing content pieces aimed at altering the perception of the brand.
Speaking directly to key stakeholders about how they view the long-term objectives, both in their department and the wider organisation, and how this project could help support these, helps us to build a picture of what a successful end-product looks like and whether there is internal consensus on how the project brief aligns with the strategy. If at all.
These conversations could take the form of one-to-one interviews, with analysts bringing all the information together to attempt to form a 'big picture'. But this would then need to be shared again with stakeholders, leading to a high probability of an open-ended feedback cycle.
Instead, and especially for larger organisations, it is useful to carry out open sessions or workshops where all stakeholders work together to make decisions quickly and understand whether their opinions are personal or shared (it's not uncommon for people to be so passionate about their area of work that they believe it should trump all others). Being able to clearly see that a large organisation has multiple priorities, and where their's might fit within those, can help to prevent resentment or animosity toward a project when it is launched.
During our work with Nottingham Trent University, we began our discovery process by facilitating an Open Space session with around 50 members of the University Leadership Team (ULT). This ensured that every senior stakeholder had an opportunity to raise issues and enabled the ULT to build its own consensus about what the key objectives were.
Understanding and validating the key objectives of the University helped us to understand the context of the project, and how to assign relative importance to the needs of the different user groups that were mapped in the next stage.
Assess user needs
To begin to understand an organisation's users, we work with internal teams to identify the various audience groups and theorise about their needs and how they want to consume content.
While it would be easier to organise a workshop of this kind with the
project team alone, we get much better results when we include
front-line staff and people from under-represented areas of the
These theories about users are then translated into user stories - a short description of what a user wants to achieve and why, written from their point of view.
But, at this stage, these stories are simply a group of nicely structured assumptions. We need to validate these with real users.
This could be achieved through focus groups or one-to-one interviews with key audience groups or, if we're replacing an existing product, we can use a digital survey to ask current users about the tasks they are trying to complete and why it is important to them.
Scope out the sweet spot
As we have worked to gain a clear idea of the goals of the organisation, we can easily identify the user stories that will contribute towards these.
Even better, we can locate the "sweet spot", where prevalent user stories align with the organisation's goals, and plan to focus the majority of our future effort there.
The user stories that we've found in this sweet spot can then be used as a foundation in planning the component features of the product, i.e. the scope
Where do we go from here?
Once we know where we will focus our efforts and have aligned the project team and stakeholders on the goals for the project and beyond, we must ensure that this focus continues throughout the rest of the project process.
Using the principles of User-centred Design (UCD) helps us to continually focus on our newly discovered sweet spot while constructing the various layers we need to create a truly sustainable and durable digital product.
- Strategy: What the organisation wants to achieve, how and why. What goals are shared by the organisation and the audience?
- Scope: What components and features would help both the organisation and its audiences to achieve their goals?
- Structure: How should we structure the product to achieve those shared goals quicker?
- Skeleton: How should we structure content and features at page level to achieve those shared goals quicker?
- Surface: How will the visual design of the product support the user?
As we already have the Strategy and the Scope, we begin to work on planning the Structure of the product before moving on to the more visual Skeleton (wireframing or prototyping) and Surface (visual design) of its components.
Since we’ve taken the time find the strategic sweet spot for the project, it only makes sense to then consider at all stages whether the outputs we are producing align with this. The UCD framework helps us to do just that.
We've found this process invaluable when working on large, complex websites with seemingly endless user and organisational needs. If you think it could be useful for your next digital project, why not chat to us about how we could help?