6 useful steps when planning your tech project

When designing a tech-enabled transparency project, one of the key lessons we emphasise through our blogs, presentations and reports is the need for a user-centric approach, based on audiences first and tools second.  Below are six practical steps inspired by Aspiration Tech, to help you put these theories into practice when planning your next tech project:

1. Articulate who would be the users of your system and how they would use it: in other words, get a greater amount of detail on who would be both the consumers and the producers within your ‘virtual marketplace’.  Once you name those actors, drill down in a very simple way what their ways would be of interacting with the system (ie: Policy maker in context X and what they need to do their job is A, B or C…).   Appreciate too that one of your audiences will invariably be the anonymous generic user – because serendipity happens!  Once the audiences are nailed down, go and find people who match those descriptions and ask ‘Does this look like you and does this look like something you truly honestly need?’  If yes then…

2. Get the target users of your system involved early – much earlier than you might think.  If you don’t do a small prototype/pilot version first, you often leave your users behind and diverge from their actual needs because you didn’t involve them directly in the process.  So take a community organising approach to building a project.   Identify users who can feed into your project strategy & design from the outset; then enlist them as beta testers and crowdsource their user experiences.  The beauty of this system is that you’ll have a ready-made audience for when your project or product is finally launched.

3. Linger in the problem space: To save yourself time, money and heartache later on you really need to linger in the problem space.  Spend time in discovery, really making sure you understand what your target users want.  Fortunately and unfortunately, new technology is the latest shiny sexy thing and it’s very easy to find someone who’ll tell you that they can build a sexy shiny thing.  It’s much more difficult to get them to build something that offers the most value, and that will be used consistently by the people that you are trying to serve.

4. Getting your tech vendor or implementer involved early is not necessarily in your best interest:  Key lesson?  Be realistic about the ways in which the tech markets work.  The truth is that many tech vendors are in the business of getting to ‘done’, to getting to solutions employed in the least amount of time so they can move on to the next project.  After all, they have a business to run. They have little to no vested interest or incentives to ‘linger in the problem space’.   At the end of the day we all want our technology strategies to be realistic, properly focused and best meeting the needs of those you are trying to help.  You, not your contracted web developer, will know how to do this.  So you definitely want to first think through the strategy issues and have a disposition that you have developed before you engage vendors.  To start you off you should…

5. Write a very short version of “A day in the Life Of This Platform…” Or in technical terms, articulate what would be the operational flow of how information gets both in and out of this system you wish to build.  You want to tease out some of the details of who would want to use the system and what you might want to provide so that it’s useful for them.  The questions below are a good starting point:

  • Describe what sort of data someone would come to your site for
  • Describe what they see when they arrive at the site
  • Describe the sequencing steps they take to search and/or browse through the data
  • Describe in simple terms how the data might be grouped (ie: regional, country, sectoral, etc)
  • Describe what results would like and how they would use the results
  • Describe feedback process: i.e. how they would use results and then feed back into the system
  • And from the providers’ point of view, describe the process of sourcing that information and getting it up on the site

The idea being that many of NGOs ideas are quite visionary but don’t always have a natural starting point. By actively imaging what your platform or intervention will look like from the point of view from BOTH the user and the provider, you will begin to concretise some of those visionary ideas.  And finally…

6. Start small and build incrementally. You want to follow iterative or incremental protocols; so rather than trying to build some giant platform straight away with all the bells and whistles, ask yourself “What is the smallest useful version of this that could be built immediately?”  What product developers and marketeers like to call the ‘Minimum Viable Product’ or MVP.

We’ve found these 6 steps to be very helpful in thinking through plenty of projects but we’re keen to get your thoughts and hear about your own experiences!  How have you gone about developing your own tech-enabled projects and what lessons can you share with us?

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