You are the user

You are the user

I’ve grown up within the agile and digital world of interaction design and user research and had the phrase ‘you are not the user’ drummed into me. It is probably the most over-used phrase in our digital development world. Stickers proclaimed it on MacBooks and laptops the country over. Pretty sure there are some folks out there with the tattoo!

If you are familiar with the Nielsen Norman Group and their brilliant courses on user research, design and user experience then you might have come across Don Norman, the gent most associated with the phrase ‘you are not the user’. He’s an incredibly clever man who has spent his career looking at the science of user centred design, ergonomics, and user experience. He’s basically a legend in the field. 

But… I’m not sure he ever worked in Local Government.  I speak to people across Wales every day. People working to deliver services to thousands of citizens the length and breadth of our country. What became apparent really quickly is how many of us are users. We live and work within our local authority. We have family living and working in our local authority.  We have children living and being educated within our local authority.  That might sound a little parochial, but it isn’t. It’s pretty normal, especially if you don’t work in a metropolitan area that has an established commuter belt.  Local authority people are part of the community they serve. And because of that, they are invested in the services they provide in a way which I haven’t really seen before.  It’s personal.

This is a double-edged sword for our digital development ambition. On the one-hand, we have access to many people who use services routinely.  People who take things to the recycling centre, book a badminton court, have parents in care homes, live in social housing, need planning permission… the list goes on.  How amazing is that? A readymade user base of people who have opinions and experiences of using the services?!  A gift of sorts.  

And then there’s the other edge of the sword. The less sharp and useful edge. The one blunted by experience and process.  Because we know the process. We know what happens when a request comes into our office. We know which software it lands in.  We know how it gets validated.  We know how long it takes to get from ‘A to B to me’.  That taints the way we look at things. It means we make excuses, not because we are being difficult or because we cut our colleagues some slack, but because we are familiar with how the machine works.  When you’re familiar with how something works you can be annoyed by it, challenge it, and even change it, but it can be really tough to do that when you’re in the middle of it.

That doesn’t mean for a second that people across the Local Government world in Wales aren’t challenging and improving services and processes every single day. And we can see that happening all the time.  What we really want to do is to concentrate this move to improve and distil it into service design improvements that can be worked on together, shared and recreated. We want these changes to be championed by Heads of Service and welcomed by our users.  We want to see changes that are not linked to specific technology choices, not broken under the burden of bureaucracy, and not stalled by an aversion to risk or change.  And, even more than that, we need to invite our citizen users along the journey with us.  User research is a must, a foundation for every service design improvement.  The relationships we can build through our engagement with our citizens is priceless for Local Gov, and we need it to endure and grow.

The amazing response we have from across Wales to our Working Groups and to some of our Discovery projects is further validation of what we already knew – Local Government in Wales is feisty and hungry. We are overwhelmed by the interest, the time, the effort, and the smart suggestions coming through these groups. My team can help shape, facilitate, and fill some of the gaps, but the ideas and solutions will come from within the Local Gov family.  We are a little country with big ideas, and I am loving it.  

There are ways to make these changes and to make them stick so that we can all benefit from them.  As users and service providers.  Because we are both.  We are the users.

There are some User Research blogs you might be interested in.


comments user
Pauline O’Hare

Hi Sam
Really interesting reading this and your other blogs 🙂
Myself and the Welsh User Researcher from HMRC aim to establish a network of Welsh User Researchers, with particular interest in bilingual UR. We are meeting at 2pm on Tuesday 9th November. It would be great to have any Welsh local government User Researchers join us. We have involved the CDPS. Please share the details with any relevant contacts 🙂

Please feel free to email me and I will happily send a Teams invite to any interested colleagues.

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