U.S. Digital Services Playbook Embraces User Research, Will Your Business?

August 13, 2014

The U.S. Federal Government officially got on board with user testing for digital experiences this week with the launch of the U.S. Digital Service. Their mission is to improve the federal government’s digital interactions with citizens.

User Research in The U.S. Digital Services Playbook

The Service announced 13 guiding points in their playbook. These will guide all projects and initiatives. The top three plays are rightly focused on user experience:

  1. Understand what people need
  2. Address the whole experience from start to finish
  3. Make it simple and intuitive

Our experience has shown all successful digital projects begin with user research, and businesses increasing their number of digital touchpoints should incorporate it into their process. However, there are plenty that don’t.

3 Common Excuses for Avoiding User Research

Why do so many businesses skip this important step? Here are 3 common defenses we hear from organizations:

1. “We know our customers.”
When it comes to being experts on their customers, many businesses borrow a line from President Obama: “I got this.” And at some level, this is true; businesses do get their customers. However, designing and building new digital experiences means moving into a new space where businesses often don’t understand or have empathy for the online customer experience. For example, we conducted user research for a software company in order to improve their marketing automation tool. An account rep from the software company observed user interviews with a customer account she had managed for 13 years. She was skeptical she’d learn anything new. However, after watching a single 45-minute session of one user struggling to complete core tasks, the account rep exclaimed: “How do we have any customers?!” She may have known the customer, but she didn’t understand the customer experience. User research quickly cuts through assumptions.

2. “We’ve already done research.”
This defense is a corollary to number 1, “Been there done that.” Experience has shown us existing research is typically woefully out of date – sometimes four, five, or six plus years old. To put that into perspective, six years ago I had just purchased my first iPhone and had little expectation for an integrated digital and social experience that is now delivered on my third iPhone. User research is required every time a new feature set is developed or at least every 18 months.

3. “We already have personas.”
Great. Typically, the personas are broad geographic sketches that are great for purchasing advertising – age, gender, geography, socio-economic statements – but not granular enough to design the optimal interface. To design a usable interface that people are excited about and committed to using (more than picking up the phone or coming in to a site in person), the design process requires conducting behavioral and contextual research – sitting and watching people complete tasks while articulating how they want to complete tasks. These tasks need to be prioritized and put into user flows. Since most businesses don’t understand user preferences at the task level, most businesses don’t have the information to design a workable interface.

User Research Saves Time and Money

At the root, all of these excuses stem from a desire to save time or money on a project. However, in the end, user research – done right – improves the product, smoothes the project design, and prevents product re-works after launch. The government’s got it right, will your business?

Read more about our reaction to the launch of the U.S. Digital Services.

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