The following is a guest post from Dave Whiteland and Paul Lenz from mySociety, who participated in a design workshop with us in Cape Town last month.
The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) in South Africa is embarking on a project based on mySociety’s Alaveteli
What’s unusual about the ODAC project is that, before any coding or implementation began, we got ODAC together with the “Governance Collaboratory”. This is an initiative from the d.school in Stanford Universitythat seeks to apply the “design thinking” approach to projects such as ODAC’s — projects that intend to make government more open, more effective, and more accountable.
So a couple of weeks ago, Gabriella Razzano of ODAC welcomed Jeremy Weinstein and Jenny Stefanotti, both from the d.school, to Cape Town for an intensive few days seeing how the design thinking approach could shape the project. Two staff from mySociety also went along — Paul (our Head of International Projects) and Dave (one of our developers) — because we’re keen to understand how the d.school’s approach might improve the way we go about building our new projects.
Now, at mySociety we already know a thing or two about building civic systems that engage with the public because we have considerable experience in the field. We are expert at combining user experience and current tech to create simple, usable interfaces (see our DIY blog for some example details). We conduct usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. But actually much of this is reactive, iterative design because it’s being applied after the core product has already been designed.
Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is an imaginary being that inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of the site’s creators. This won’tnecessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpectedthings that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.
This is uncomfortable for those of us used to building general things from the bottom up and refining them later. It means introducing empathy and rapid, offline prototyping much earlier in the process than we’d normally expect. Certainly in the commercial world it’s common for a company to prototype against their target consumers early on. But for civic projects such as mySociety’s, it’s often much harder to identify who the users will be, for the impressive yet overwhelming reason that often we are building our platforms for everybody. This can lead to generalisations which may miss specific issues that could make a huge difference to some users.
The d.school advocates a “learning by doing” way of teaching, so the days we spent in Cape Town were a busy mix of practice as well as theory. We interviewed people who had a variety reasons to want to make freedom of information requests, including an activist who’s already used South Africa’s freedom of information legislation to make requests regarding housing projects, the head of a rape crisis centre, and law students who may well become a nation’s most empowered activists. From these interviews we isolated specific needs, which at this stage were nearly all unconnected to any digital or web requirement. Jeremy and Jenny then led us through the process of rapid, analogue prototyping intended to address specific needs that had emerged from the user studies.
Inevitably we could only scratch the surface in the few days we had available, but we hope ODAC will be able to apply the process to the development of their project, just as we aim to use it to benefit the work on ours.
Image credit: Procavia capensis (Rock-dwelling Hyrax or Dassie) by Arthur Chapman, released under CC BY-NC-SA on Flickr.
They tell visitors that dassies such as these live atop Table Mountain. We went up there and saw none. Similarly, freedom on information requests exist in South Africa under the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000 (PIAI), but most people have never seen one — fewer than 200 PAIA requests were made nationally in 2012. This tenuous comparison allows us to illustrate this blog post with a cute picture of fuzzy mammals.