Human Action: the key to good Civic Tech research

A deep dive into the various phases of user-centered research and what we learnt through the adoption of this person-focused research technique.

In the previous article we discussed the implementation of a user-centered project design method and how this approach helped us to design and develop. This approach places emphasis on people or ‘users’ as its main source of information. In this article we will dive further into this design approach by analysing the various phases of user-centered research and highlight the impact they had on the project.

User-centered research was valuable as it helped us explore information currently unavailable, not easily accessible, or lacking in detail.  

The goal of this article is to highlight the importance of using a human-focused research approach and to explore how this process helped us in the development of the CaseFile app.

The 5 phases of User-centred Research 

The illustration below shows the various phases of the User-centred research design framework. Each phase increases the capacity of developers to solve a particular problem. Through interviews, inputs, and resolutions discussed between the OpenUp team, and the project stakeholders (CAOSA, and the Working Group), we were able to make informed decisions when setting out to build the case management system. 


Phase 1 - Innovation  

The innovation phase started with the formation of the Working Group to discuss technological upgrades of Community Advice Offices (CAOs).

Innovation is about developing the process of turning an idea (need) into a practical reality (app/product).

In this case - the thinking went from we need better data management in the CAO sector to we need a Case Management System to better manage data. From this information the research team explored case management systems on the market and product features that may be useful. The innovation phase helped inform us about foreseeable issues and what we would need to test during the understanding phase of our research. 

After initial meetings between OpenUp and CAOSA as well as preliminary research conducted with the Working Group, it was established that developing a case management system from scratch would be more appropriate than adapting a pre-existing system. By building our system from scratch we could ensure that all the data collected throughout our phases of user research could be incorporated into our applications design. For example, offline usage is an innovative feature that came from our research into the Working Group’s data connectivity. We found many of the ‘off the shelf’ case management systems required connectivity beyond the office's current capabilities. The term ‘off the shelf’ refers to products or software that is ready-made or packaged, rather than being a custom built solution .  

Phase 2 - Understand Users

In Phase 2, direct project stakeholders played a significant role in the research. Through focus groups, interviews and observations with CAOSA and members from the Working Group we developed the CAO Profile Report. This report informed the OpenUp team about the working environment and what the Community Advice Office Workers (CAOWs) envisioned the system to be. From a technical aspect this research informed us of the constrained work context experienced by the Working Group and the implications this would have on the technologies we would be able to use to solve their problems. For example, the majority of the CAOs interviewed experienced unreliable connectivity on a daily basis which meant we had constraints on the software that we were able to implement. 

User-centred design provides an infrequent but vital link between the development team and the end-user as they themselves are members of the community they work in.

Through the research, our team was able to better understand how the users will actually use the app. At Openup we believe the developer is not the user, and therefore must not assume they know exactly what the user wants or needs. Assuming what your users need based on your own tastes and biases is a shortcut to a failed product.

An interesting by-product of this phase of research was the level of engagement that was created, as Working Group members felt invested in the project.  

Phase 3 - Define Interaction

To understand what features the system needed, we needed to first define the interaction. To do this we developed the Stakeholder Analysis Report. In this phase of the research it was important to look at differences in opinion between CAOSA and the Working Group, and to find a middle ground that would be beneficial to all stakeholders. For example, the Working Group felt strongly that the system should focus on simplifying the data collection and capturing process, while CAOSA felt that the main purpose should not only improve the data collection processes but also create a more formalised standard operating procedure and data analysis platform.

By analysing and comparing the research compiled in CAO Profile Report and the Stakeholder Analysis Report OpenUp’s team was able to investigate and propose fit-for-purpose technical solutions and invent new methods suitable to all parties. 

The second task of phase 3 was to develop an understanding of the needs of citizens accessing CAOs. By understanding the client’s needs or the types of disputes they deal with, we are more informed when building out the features of CaseFile. 

To create further understanding for the team and to document the types of cases that the system would have to manage, the Client Data and Knowledge Research report was developed. This report also helped inform the copy written for the system. It is important that language used in the system remains consistent with what is currently used at CAOs to ensure a smooth transition of CaseFile into their workflow. In cases where new terminology will be introduced, feedback collected from user research will help ensure that the best suited terminology is used. 

Phase 4 - Design UX/UI

After defining the intended interaction for the system we moved into the Design UX/UI phase, in this phase we developed a wireframe model outlining CaseFiles architecture. Once the wireframe had been designed the team conducted a meeting with stakeholders (CAOSA and the Working Group) where feedback was once again collected to inform the team moving into phase 5, development and validation. 


Collaborative User-centered Design Framework

The illustration below shows an example of how layers of research collected from key stakeholders was analysed, ie. by understanding the context of different stakeholders involved we are able to understand the user experience envisioned by all parties.

Adopting a user-centred approach required collaboration not only between stakeholders (OpenUp, CAOSA, and the CAOs of the Working Group). The approach also required internal collaboration between inter-disciplinary teams within OpenUp. Through direct digital networking pathways (slack channels) as well as a project board (trello board), research findings could be constantly relayed back to the development team, Project Manager, and Product Owner. This interaction also took place through frequently scheduled Sprint Planning, Reviews, and Retrospectives on Google Meets. 

Human Collaboration and the Development of CaseFile  

In developing CaseFile there have been vital internal and external collaborations that have allowed for user-centered research to flourish . Through user-centered research valuable project feedback was consistently being relayed between development team, Project Manager, and Product Owner as well as all relevant stakeholders in order to make the best informed decisions. 

Each phase of the user-centered research process played an integral role in the development of the case management system as they helped inform the OpenUp team about different aspects of the system that needed to be built, why they needed to be built, and what would need to be further researched in order to build these features. 

Throughout the user research process strong collaborative bonds were formed between members from the different stakeholders. These collaborative bonds have proved an essential part of the project as they ensure swift, clear, and honest communication between all parties.  

Coming soon 

In the next article, we will discuss the formation of OpenUps approach to flexible and intuitive user testing. We will explore the method used by our design team to conduct user testing and how this innovative process assisted us in developing a visual understanding of what needed to be built, and allowed the OpenUp team to test assumptions and make the best UX and UI architecture decisions. 

OpenUp is committed to keeping our research process as transparent as possible. With this in mind, if you are interested in diving deeper into some of our research for this project linked above, please let us know at shaun@openup.org.za, or jonathan@openup.org.za



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A deep dive into the various phases of user-centered research and what we learnt through the adoption of this person-focused research technique.

In the previous article we discussed the implementation of a user-centered project design method and how this approach helped us to design and develop. This approach places emphasis on people or ‘users’ as its main source of information. In this article we will dive further into this design approach by analysing the various phases of user-centered research and highlight the impact they had on the project.

User-centered research was valuable as it helped us explore information currently unavailable, not easily accessible, or lacking in detail.  

The goal of this article is to highlight the importance of using a human-focused research approach and to explore how this process helped us in the development of the CaseFile app.

The 5 phases of User-centred Research 

The illustration below shows the various phases of the User-centred research design framework. Each phase increases the capacity of developers to solve a particular problem. Through interviews, inputs, and resolutions discussed between the OpenUp team, and the project stakeholders (CAOSA, and the Working Group), we were able to make informed decisions when setting out to build the case management system. 


Phase 1 - Innovation  

The innovation phase started with the formation of the Working Group to discuss technological upgrades of Community Advice Offices (CAOs).

Innovation is about developing the process of turning an idea (need) into a practical reality (app/product).

In this case - the thinking went from we need better data management in the CAO sector to we need a Case Management System to better manage data. From this information the research team explored case management systems on the market and product features that may be useful. The innovation phase helped inform us about foreseeable issues and what we would need to test during the understanding phase of our research. 

After initial meetings between OpenUp and CAOSA as well as preliminary research conducted with the Working Group, it was established that developing a case management system from scratch would be more appropriate than adapting a pre-existing system. By building our system from scratch we could ensure that all the data collected throughout our phases of user research could be incorporated into our applications design. For example, offline usage is an innovative feature that came from our research into the Working Group’s data connectivity. We found many of the ‘off the shelf’ case management systems required connectivity beyond the office's current capabilities. The term ‘off the shelf’ refers to products or software that is ready-made or packaged, rather than being a custom built solution .  

Phase 2 - Understand Users

In Phase 2, direct project stakeholders played a significant role in the research. Through focus groups, interviews and observations with CAOSA and members from the Working Group we developed the CAO Profile Report. This report informed the OpenUp team about the working environment and what the Community Advice Office Workers (CAOWs) envisioned the system to be. From a technical aspect this research informed us of the constrained work context experienced by the Working Group and the implications this would have on the technologies we would be able to use to solve their problems. For example, the majority of the CAOs interviewed experienced unreliable connectivity on a daily basis which meant we had constraints on the software that we were able to implement. 

User-centred design provides an infrequent but vital link between the development team and the end-user as they themselves are members of the community they work in.

Through the research, our team was able to better understand how the users will actually use the app. At Openup we believe the developer is not the user, and therefore must not assume they know exactly what the user wants or needs. Assuming what your users need based on your own tastes and biases is a shortcut to a failed product.

An interesting by-product of this phase of research was the level of engagement that was created, as Working Group members felt invested in the project.  

Phase 3 - Define Interaction

To understand what features the system needed, we needed to first define the interaction. To do this we developed the Stakeholder Analysis Report. In this phase of the research it was important to look at differences in opinion between CAOSA and the Working Group, and to find a middle ground that would be beneficial to all stakeholders. For example, the Working Group felt strongly that the system should focus on simplifying the data collection and capturing process, while CAOSA felt that the main purpose should not only improve the data collection processes but also create a more formalised standard operating procedure and data analysis platform.

By analysing and comparing the research compiled in CAO Profile Report and the Stakeholder Analysis Report OpenUp’s team was able to investigate and propose fit-for-purpose technical solutions and invent new methods suitable to all parties. 

The second task of phase 3 was to develop an understanding of the needs of citizens accessing CAOs. By understanding the client’s needs or the types of disputes they deal with, we are more informed when building out the features of CaseFile. 

To create further understanding for the team and to document the types of cases that the system would have to manage, the Client Data and Knowledge Research report was developed. This report also helped inform the copy written for the system. It is important that language used in the system remains consistent with what is currently used at CAOs to ensure a smooth transition of CaseFile into their workflow. In cases where new terminology will be introduced, feedback collected from user research will help ensure that the best suited terminology is used. 

Phase 4 - Design UX/UI

After defining the intended interaction for the system we moved into the Design UX/UI phase, in this phase we developed a wireframe model outlining CaseFiles architecture. Once the wireframe had been designed the team conducted a meeting with stakeholders (CAOSA and the Working Group) where feedback was once again collected to inform the team moving into phase 5, development and validation. 


Collaborative User-centered Design Framework

The illustration below shows an example of how layers of research collected from key stakeholders was analysed, ie. by understanding the context of different stakeholders involved we are able to understand the user experience envisioned by all parties.

Adopting a user-centred approach required collaboration not only between stakeholders (OpenUp, CAOSA, and the CAOs of the Working Group). The approach also required internal collaboration between inter-disciplinary teams within OpenUp. Through direct digital networking pathways (slack channels) as well as a project board (trello board), research findings could be constantly relayed back to the development team, Project Manager, and Product Owner. This interaction also took place through frequently scheduled Sprint Planning, Reviews, and Retrospectives on Google Meets. 

Human Collaboration and the Development of CaseFile  

In developing CaseFile there have been vital internal and external collaborations that have allowed for user-centered research to flourish . Through user-centered research valuable project feedback was consistently being relayed between development team, Project Manager, and Product Owner as well as all relevant stakeholders in order to make the best informed decisions. 

Each phase of the user-centered research process played an integral role in the development of the case management system as they helped inform the OpenUp team about different aspects of the system that needed to be built, why they needed to be built, and what would need to be further researched in order to build these features. 

Throughout the user research process strong collaborative bonds were formed between members from the different stakeholders. These collaborative bonds have proved an essential part of the project as they ensure swift, clear, and honest communication between all parties.  

Coming soon 

In the next article, we will discuss the formation of OpenUps approach to flexible and intuitive user testing. We will explore the method used by our design team to conduct user testing and how this innovative process assisted us in developing a visual understanding of what needed to be built, and allowed the OpenUp team to test assumptions and make the best UX and UI architecture decisions. 

OpenUp is committed to keeping our research process as transparent as possible. With this in mind, if you are interested in diving deeper into some of our research for this project linked above, please let us know at shaun@openup.org.za, or jonathan@openup.org.za



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