The importance of real users in user-centered design

All apps and systems have users – this is a fundamental statement of fact. And the term ‘user’ can mean many things to many people. As commissioners, project managers, developers and techies, I often think that we misunderstand and misuse the term. So the title of this blog might seem painfully obvious and even slightly stupid, but I’d argue that it’s not; and that we need to focus on the needs of our ‘real’ users.

I recently attended a requirements workshop. Attendees included those you would expect. Technical analysts, project managers, representatives from the business, and those tasked with looking after communications. We reviewed a proposed process map showing the new way of working once the app being developed was deployed. The app itself is for frontline workers delivering services in the community, direct to citizens.

It became apparent that we had taken our thinking so far but that we had become ‘stuck’ for want of a better word. In the past, experience tells me that we would have stayed in the room till we worked out a solution, or as is often the case, worked out half a solution that would have allowed us all to head off and continue development and deployment. We would then have implemented the solution in good faith, only to have significant rework to complete once the real users got their hands on the app. With a change of thinking an approach, in this session, someone very early in the meeting said ‘will we get the operatives in next week and ask them if this can work.’ This was a Damascus moment for me! For once we realised that bosses and technical specialists just don’t have all the answers.

I think the importance of frontline users is heightened in a mobile environment. I’d argue that mobile development is heading towards some form of maturity in back office apps such as financial systems, productivity apps and CRMs. The idea of a frontline user here is less obvious as those developing the systems may have a reasonable ideas of how they are used themselves – after all we all use email and calendar. In mobile, and in the move towards mobilising mass frontline workforces, the user is a new individual, a different one, and often, one that we don’t understand. This needs recognised. And we really do need to change the way we do things.

In the new world of frontline worker app deployment; planning sessions, updates and meetings need to be approached differently. Project teams need to go to where the workers are. This might mean having meetings in cleansing depots, home care bases and community hubs. Frontline workers involved in projects still have work to do and this work is often not done if they are away from their place of work for extended periods. So meeting in corporate HQs needs a rethink. There may also need to be a time-shift in meetings. If a worker’s shift starts at 7am and the user is willing to meet you at 630am to see a demo or review a process diagram, then so be it. And meetings themselves need to be less technical and more focussed on the end-goal and on outputs. We need to be more inclusive.

The approach I’m progressing here does not negate in any way the need for highly technical meetings, for governance or for project boards. It would be foolish to suggest this. However when it comes to understanding ways of working, planning sessions and developing new apps, a new approach to working with frontline users will pay real dividends.

When a frontline workforce fully engage in apps deployment, benefits are palpable. Firstly, adoption is easier. If you feel part of something, you own it and you invest in ensuring its success. Secondly, solutions are richer. The people on the frontline know what they are doing and know what can make things better. Thirdly, rework is less. In an agile development environment, regular ‘show and tells’, often every two weeks during the development lifecycle, are suited to those not traditionally associated with being involved in projects. Seeing something regularly reduces negativity and breeds success. And finally, engaging with your frontline workforce, makes compelling economic sense. Less rework, richer sessions, and shared ownership will naturally speed up projects and reduce overall costs.


About the author
Brendan Murphy is Head of Creative Services at Cordia (Services) LLP and Project Lead for Glasgow City Council’s mobile programme. In both roles he has helped deploy over 2,800 mobile devices (with an excellent team and great departmental support) to frontline workers including home carers and cleansing operatives. Brendan is also an associate lecturer in computing at the Open University.


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James Smithyes 3 Years Ago

A really interesting article reminding us never to lose sight of the end user and the wider outcomes