Allowing users to drive their own digital experience

19 Dec 2016

Written by Nicola Mayer, Director of Research at Yoomee

Our experience shows the best and most innovative digital tools are conceived, designed, developed and tested in partnership with the very people who will use them. Not those commissioning or paying for or making them, but the end users. In short, they are ‘people-driven’.

A partnership of equals

The concept of co-creation or co-design isn’t new. At Yoomee we’ve been using this approach for a good five years, and don’t think of it as particularly radical. But I would suggest that for many out there it is.

Think about the day to day frustrations you have when trying to do something online. Has the person developing the endless loop you’re stuck in tried to stand in your shoes? Have they asked non-technical people to try to achieve something and observed them in doing so?

Involving users takes time, energy and most of all an open mind to change the assumptions from which you may have been operating.

Two key questions to ask

Don’t be discouraged, even if it feels like hard work. Stay strong and stick to the principle of involving the people you work with day to day. At the outset, the questions you ask don’t need to be complicated. Whether you’re building a website, app, game, community or text-based tool, in our experience, questions divide neatly along two lines:

  • What do you need from this new digital product to improve the things we’re discussing?
  • What worries you about this new digital tool and how it might impact you?

Focusing on simple questions at the beginning of the project is important. It means you are far more likely to reach a clear understanding of what you need to start developing. That’s particularly helpful if you are going to adopt an Agile software approach and build iteratively.

Involving those on the margins

Co-design is also a powerful tool if you want to involve people who are on the margins – 12.6 million currently don’t have the skills to get online. Think the lead character in I, Daniel Blake, who literally runs his mouse across the monitor when told to, ‘Run your mouse up the screen.’

Co-design sessions need involve nothing digital. Post-it notes, pens, flipcharts are the order of the day. It helps make sure your sessions are welcoming and inclusive for people who don’t deal in digital – you need to break down rather than put up more barriers. Most of all they involve conversation, ideas sharing and listening.

Here’s one we made earlier

One of Yoomee’s favourite projects is Elefriends, the online peer support network we’ve designed and developed in close partnership with Mind and its users. Mind does nothing without talking to the people who use its services – the charity recognises that they are the resident experts.

So, that’s what we did as we took Elefriends from a private Facebook group to a standalone peer support network. We took it slowly, one step at a time, always working together with users. We ran co-design workshops, shared prototypes, held user testing sessions and gave them a separate feedback area on the website.

The wheels on the bus

One of the most memorable sessions came at the end of a long day in London when we were starting to think about how people use Elefriends.

Suddenly, the room morphed from people sitting discussing across a circle of chairs to become a bus, with chairs arranged in banks of seats. Users had recognised that their biggest point of need was when they were alone, on public transport, and needing to access help before they got home to their desktop computer.

It sounds obvious in hindsight, but at the time the need to take something off the web and into people’s pockets was radical. It would not have happened had users not been together, discussing challenges to their mental health and how they most wanted to manage them.

Out of this discussion came the funding search to build iOS and Android apps, whose use now far outstrips that of the responsive website. But without users sharing their experiences together, we wouldn’t have reached this conclusion as quickly, or with such clear focus.

User testing Learn My Way 4

The same is true of Learn My Way 4. By taking the new site out and about and testing it with users, The Good Things Foundation has been able to take on board user's feedback and make incremental improvements.

Feedback continues to come in and will be acted on over the coming months. If you want to find out more, then take a look at Emily Redmond’s piece, which outlines what was learned through user testing Learn My Way 4.

Do not ignore your users

My advice is to ignore your users at your peril. You may think you can think or speak on their behalf, but kid yourself not.

Those of us who work in digital day in and day out need to step outside the comfort of our own offices and our own thought patterns. You must embrace the way other people approach digital, which will be entirely different to the way you do it.

In doing so, you’ll discover new and insightful perspectives. You will also ensure that your new digital product or service does what it needs to for the people it seeks to help.

Author Info

Nicola Mayer is Director of Research at Yoomee, a Sheffield-based digital agency that helps charities and nonprofits make new online services and digital products.

Nicola helped co-found Yoomee with her partner, Andy. She previously worked for NAVCA, the National Association of Councils for Voluntary Action.