Chapter 9

Appendix: Ensuring that your Tech Project is Usable

One of the key lessons we emphasise in our blogs, presentations and reports is the need for a user-centred approach to designing tech-enabled transparency projects. These projects should be based on audiences first and tools second.

Here 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 use your system, and how. Get a lot of detail about the intended consumers and producers within your “virtual marketplace”. Once you’ve identified those actors, make a simple analysis of how they would be likely to interact with your system; for example, if one type of user would be a policy maker in a specific context, what would that person need from you in order to get her or his job done? Don’t forget that you’ll also attract anonymous generic users as well as various distinct and more engaged audiences. Once you’ve identified the audiences you expect, and think you understand them, go
    out and find people who match those descriptions and ask them, “Does this image of an audience look like you, and does this project look like something you truly, honestly need?” Only if the answer is yes, then…
  2. Get some of the target users of your system involved early – much earlier than you might think. It’s a good idea to involve them in a small prototype or pilot version of your project first, or you may find you’ve left your users behind and diverged from their actual needs. Take a community-organising approach to building a project. Identify users who can feed their ideas, needs and input into your project strategy and design from the outset, then enlist them as pilot testers. The beauty of this approach is that you will then 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 must start by devoting a lot of time and mental energy to working out what you need and DON’T need, and to making sure you understand as exactly as possible what your target users really want. Fortunately, and also unfortunately, new technology is the latest shiny sexy thing and it’s very easy to find people to tell you that they can build you a sexy shiny thing. It’s much more difficult to get them to build the thing that offers the most value, and that will be used consistently and fruitfully by the people that you are trying to serve.
  4. Getting your tech vendor, consultant or implementer involved early on in the project is not necessarily in your best interests: The key lesson here is to be realistic about the way tech markets work: the truth is that many tech vendors are in the business of getting “solutions” accomplished in the shortest possible time, so they can move on
    to their next project. After all, these people have a business to run. They have little or no vested interest, nor any incentives to “linger in the problem space”. You will want your technology strategies to be realistic, properly focused and structured in a way that allows them to meet the needs of the people you are trying to help. You will know how to do this better than your contracted web developer does, so you should definitely think through the strategy issues very carefully and 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 information getting in to
    and out of the 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 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’d see when they arrive at the site
    • Describe the sequencing steps they would take to search and/or browse through the data
    • Describe in simple terms how the data might be sorted or collated (by region, by date, country, sector, size, etc.)
    • Describe what results would look like and how they would use the results
    • Describe the feedback process: how would people use results and then provide feedback on how to improve them.
    • And from the providers’ point of view, describe the process of sourcing that information and getting it up on the site

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

  6. Start small and build incrementally. Take things one step at a time, and make sure
    with each step that you’re still on course; rather than trying to build some giant platform straight away with all kinds of bells and whistles, ask yourself, “What is the smallest useful version of this that could be built immediately?” Try to create what product developers and marketing experts 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.

Helpful Useability Resources