It is so romantic to think the things we are passionate about are easy. We are a passionate group at We Think. As passionate as we are, developing this organization is hard work and takes time.
As a group of professionals working full-time, it is sometimes difficult to find the time and energy at the end of the working day that will move our organization from conceptualization to prototyping, testing and iterating along the way. In our introductory blog post we talked about using a lean, agile and human-centred design approach to our work. These approaches are based on the shared belief that we can be more successful and save significant time and effort by connecting with our users to incorporate their feedback. These approaches require a good tolerance for uncertainty, risk, acceptance of the imperfect, hard work and time.
As an organization that embraces the benefits of data plus engagement, we have been talking a lot about the multiplicity of truths through data and the multiple challenges that data presents us. Rayna began the conversation in our last blog post, when she talked about the promise and limits of data more generally.
While we agree there are some insights that we can gain from data, we also recognize that data in and of itself has the potential to reproduce inherent biases held among those who construct it. Data can be used to elevate the voices of some over others. To convey power and standing to a particular set of ideas while minimizing the importance of others. And that data has the potential to create blind spots or point us in directions, towards decisions that are made outside of the context in which they will need to be implemented or without regard for those people who are likely to be affected.
This is why We Think is invested so heavily in the importance of engagement and the validation of data. And why We Think is compelled to incorporate user driven methods into the development of our organization and our products. But that doesn’t mean it has been easy to do.
So what … you may be asking? We all want to use data and analytics to inform decision making and we generally know that engagement is a good practice – whether you’re working to serve the public good or simply to maximize profit for your company’s shareholders – but why go to such lengths to incorporate these types user driven processes?
Beyond the desire to validate data and information there are a number of other reasons to consider using these approaches. First, utilizing these methodologies often forces an organization or stakeholders to test their assumptions – this is where uncertainty and risk comes in. Testing assumptions means being open to being wrong. The key here is to avoid wasting time and energy on developing products, services or initiatives that aren’t likely to serve your users. Second, by utilizing lean, agile and user focused method you have a greater chance of getting to what is working and for whom, so you increase your likelihood of success. This way, you don’t “lose your shirt” in developing a product, a service, an initiative or even a business that people don’t want or need or in the case of social enterprise, that isn’t making a positive social impact.
We don’t profess to be experts in the application of lean, agile and human centred process; we are learning along the way. We’re adapting these methods and using them to advance the work we’d like to be engaged in.
So what has this looked like for We Think over the past few months? How have we integrated some of these ideas into our practice? What has this meant for us.
We had an idea – that open data is plentiful but that the capacity, skills, knowledge time and opportunity to use and integrate it may be limited in the social sector. We did our basic research. We learned about our primary users, our sector (and competitors), and we refined what we plan to offer. From there we have been engaged in building a prototype to show to users. It has taken some time to arrive at consensus within our organization and to understand what features might be necessary but we are now starting to gel.
Probably one of the easiest forms of prototyping is a storyboard. In a storyboard, you can create a story of how your users access, use and benefit from your product, service or concept that looks much like a comic strip or series of vignettes. The point of a storyboard is to show a user or range of user’s experience and motivations for using your product or service. If your concept lends itself well to a physical product, you can build something out of clay, cardboard, or paper. If your product is technology based you can mock up and build a minimal viable product (MVP) online for customers to try and use. The most important part here is to give your users enough of an idea of what you plan to offer. It should have some basic functions but does not to have to be a perfect product!
Here is our storyboard for how the We Think platform and approach could be used in municipal decision-making and engagement.
Do you have an idea? What are you waiting for … build a prototype that represents your ideas and get out there to test it!
Once you’ve taken the first step to create something, the next step is to share with your users and the world so you can measure their reactions and feedback for improvements. Be curious. Watch as users interact with your prototype. Don’t just note down what is being said but also patterns in the way users interact with your product and each other, the kinds of questions they don’t ask. Ask questions to probe more deeply around their perspectives. Record the experiences you observe and feedback you receive. Take detailed notes; really channel that inner-Ethnographer inside. Remember not to interject your reasons for including or not including something, your point of view, and don’t attempt to sell. The purpose of this step is to gather the perspectives of your users and stakeholders so you can improve on your idea.
This is probably the most difficult step in the process. It takes practice to be on the receiving end of a critique; to be open; to be reflective. We often get attached to our ideas and having others criticize it without providing a rebuttal can be extremely challenging. Try framing the feedback you are getting as a gift rather than a criticism, it may help. Those who are willing to give you honest feedback without reservation are truly giving you a gift that will help you quickly improve your idea, product and/or service.
Now is the time to make sense of what is working with your prototype and what is not. Take the time to look at your prototype and what you’ve measured. Be honest with yourself and look closely at the feedback. You don’t have to accept it all. You just need to consider it. Weigh it with all the information you have including your intuition and the feedback of others. The more you are willing to learn and incorporate into your future iterations, the more your product, service or concept will resonate with your users because they have been a part of creating it with you.
Human-centered design is a philosophy, not a precise set of methods, but one that assumes that innovation should start by getting close to users and observing their activities.
– Donald A. Norman, Co – founder of Nielsen Norman Group
Each of these methodologies start with high level planning and research moving quickly into building a prototype to test your assumptions and ideas. Your early decisions are based on high level data, later decisions are based on data from engagement with users. The users feedback and experience ultimately tell you whether your assumptions are correct and your ideas have value. If it resonates, then you are onto something. If it doesn’t it’s back to the drawing board!
Granted it isn’t easy and it all takes time. The challenges for us is finding enough time between family and full-time work to get through it all.
We are going to start testing our storyboard in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we’d love to know your thoughts. Please comment below or get at us on Twitter.