Hacking user centred design for social change efforts.

Our learnings never happen in isolation and we are always grateful to those who have helped inform us along the way. We learned a hell of a lot from Misty Avila and Allen Gunn (Gunner) at Aspiration, who shared their methodologies to get tool developers to focus on users’ needs.  We are also grateful to  Mariel Garcia, Allen Gunn (Gunner), Sasha Kinney, and Jonah Silas Sheridan for their contributions to this post, along with the participants in our workshop at the Non Profit Developer Summit in Oakland in November, 2015. We also need to thank Elena Mondo and the team at the Open Budget Initiative for allowing us to use them as an example. Also special thanks to Ric Mallamo for his awesome proofreading and copy-editing skills.

User-centred design is a process that focuses on the end-user of a product. It is used by website and software developers to narrow their focus on the key functionality that has value for users of the software or site. Here at FabRiders we have been exploring how this methodology may provide organisations working towards social change an opportunity, not only to develop tech-related projects that will engage individuals, and also to examine and develop a deeper understanding of how to create real value for stakeholders in their efforts. We define stakeholders as the people who are involved in making and/or are impacted by the change you are trying to make. 

The user-centred approach gives people working towards social change an opportunity to think about their efforts from the perspective of their stakeholders. Rather than thinking about how you will engage people, this approach will get you to better understand what motivates them to get engaged in the first place.

In this post, we are exploring the benefits of combining stakeholder mapping with user-centred design for social change campaigners. While stakeholder mapping and power analysis is incredibly valuable for developing social change strategies and campaigns, it’s not as valuable for software developers, who aren’t trying to support social change efforts. The steps laid out here are based on our experience helping organisations to think more deeply about their stakeholders and subsequently, the users of technologies they are deploying within a larger strategy

This post has been written as a reflection on a process we have done several times. It is specifically for people who might consider themselves technology capacity builders but also for people working in their own organisation looking for ways to better understand how their social change strategy connects with stakeholders. If you are attempting to utilise these steps, your own experience may be varied (but get in touch and let us know!)

Understanding the role of technology in your social change strategy

Social change nearly always involves specific people taking or being affected by actions in specific areas. Without knowing your stakeholders and how their knowledge and behaviours intersect with your vision of change, it is very hard to find an effective way forward. This understanding is critical for using technology as tactics within your strategy. Be clear about the outputs and outcomes you expect your tech to deliver.

If you haven’t taken the time to think strategically on your social change efforts, we highly recommend taking a half day to do some preliminary work towards a strategy. You will want to involve the team of people who will be responsible for implementing the strategy. 

Start with a vision of success for your strategy, which might actually be a full blown theory of change. If you don’t have that, an epitaph exercise can be very helpful. Think about how you would want your efforts to be remembered – and write an epitaph that describes the change you want to create and how you want it to be remembered. You can find a good explanation of running an epitaph exercise in this guide from Keystone Accountability on creating a theory of change (see page 8, Activity 1: Creating a ‘vision of success’).

IMG_3948Who are the people involved in your vision of success?

A simple drawing exercise can be helpful in thinking more deeply about people. Draw your vision of success with an emphasis on people: who are the people impacted by your change? How are they behaving differently as a result of the change you are looking for? Once your picture is drawn, get out some Post-it notes and write down all the different kinds of people in the drawing. Now think through preconditions for that success and list all the different kinds of people who would be involved and impacted in those.

Next step is to think more immediately – what change are you trying to make? How will your tech contribute to this? Think about who you are trying to engage and what you want them to do.  It might be helpful to use those Post-it notes and employ this exercise: using the spectrogram to do stakeholder mapping and power analysis.

Identifying the target users of your end product

Once you have run the stakeholder mapping and power analysis exercise, you should have a good idea as to which users you will need to focus on. Pay particular attention to the people who can make change and those that influence them, along with those for whom you are trying to build power and the people who can support them in building power. Now make a list of the types of people. You are likely to have types like: The Media, Members of Parliament, Students, Teachers, etc.; these general “user types” will be your guide in generating and prioritising features and content. 

A real key to user centred design is to pinpoint your most likely user types, you should not waste time building user personas and stories for people that will never use your end product. More likely those people will be allies and possibly neutral parties who utilise similar technologies already. 

For the next step we will narrow our focus, to more efficiently understand the users.

Incorporating User Centred Design

Now here’s where the software developer user methodologies come in: look at your list and put real names of real people next to each type.  Now start building out ‘user personas’.

Begin with a photo (draw a likeness if necessary), name, age, location, along with answers to the following questions:

  1. How will your project help support their work and/or help them improve their life? This should be worded from their perspective (‘This helps me improve my ability to xxx’).
  2. A description of when would they access your tech project.  What would they be doing? What would they want to get from you, information about what? Or would they be giving you some sort of information?  What is the purpose of their interaction? 
  3. What device would they be using to access it? What sort of bandwidth would they have?

Then you can write user stories for each type of integration you think the user might have.  User stories usually consist of this information:

  • As a (role), I am using the (tech project name) when I need to (action) so that I can (goal)

The User Interview

IMG_3946Now comes the fun part! Interview real users and test your assumptions. For those that you would consider allies, this is a great way to share ownership and get them involved in your efforts. 

During the interview you will want to learn. If they work in an institution or organisation, what are they trying to accomplish and how does their work contribute to those long term goals – so ask:

  •      What is the long term goal or mission of their organisation?
  •      How does their work support that goal?

Explain your tech project and what it is aiming to do. Then ask:

  •      How can it help support the work they are doing?
  •      When might they access it?  From where? What would they be doing?
  •      What devices do they use? When do they use them?
  •      What technologies do they already use? What do they like, what don’t they like?
  •      What is their bandwidth like?
  •      What browsers do they most commonly use?
  •      Do they have privacy or anonymity concerns?

And finish by asking: would they like to be more involved? Would they like to be part of a testing/trial group?     

Do not take the value of the interview lightly. Get as much information as you can, but also be wary of taking up too much of the person’s time. Try to limit the interview to 30 minutes. Write up the notes from your interview and make sure they are read by and accessible to everyone on your team.

This is all a precursor to creating a specification to be used in either identifying an existing technology solution or coming to the conclusion that you should build your own. (See our post on Tech Project Specifications for more).

How this works in real life

FabRiders worked with the Open Budget Initiative, a project of the International Budget Partnership, in the Spring and Summer of 2015 to help them better understand the users of the Open Budget Survey, a government fiscal transparency index that is published every two years.

We started by determining a vision of success for the project. We came up with the following Epitaph for OBS – essentially what we would like it to be remembered for, if it ever ceased to exist.  The epitaph reads:

  • Because of the Open Budget Initiative, the values of budget transparency, participation and accountability are universally held, practiced and defended to meet the needs of current and future generations.

The OBI team identifying users

A drawing exercise to pinpoint how people were behaving differently as a result of OBI’s efforts helped us identify the people who would be impacted or involved in the change OBI wants to make.  We then used the spectrogram to do stakeholder mapping to determine who are the key types of stakeholders OBI should focus on. We came up with the following list:

  • Transparency Advocates, who are pressuring their governments to be more transparent
  • International Donors, who encourage and nudge governments to be transparent
  • Transparent Ministries of Finance, who serve as models for other governments trying to achieve openness and transparency. They also are motivated by accountability to citizens to remain transparent.
  • Non-transparent Ministries of Finance who need to be engaged and educated on the benefits of being open and transparent and having an engaged citizenry.
  • Civil Society Organisations, who pressure governments to be fiscally transparent, often while advocating for other issues.

We then created user personas of real people whom we considered to be representative of each of the above categories. We realised that Non-Transparent Ministries of Finance were very unlikely to use the Open Budget Survey, so we did not prioritise developing user stories about them. After the workshop, FabRiders conducted interviews with 12 individuals to better understand how they used the Open Budget Survey in their work. We wrote the following general user stories for use in future development of the Open Budget Survey website.  

  • Transparency advocates are largely involved in pushing for greater budget transparency in some form. They interact with the survey as users of the information to advocate for greater transparency but also as researchers, providing answers to the questions and information for the survey. They use the survey and index as a way of pressuring governments to be more transparent, but they also use it to educate governments on what types of financial documents they need to produce, and what those documents should contain. They also use the Open Budget Tracker as a way to monitor progress when the Survey is not being conducted.  They are also using the fiscal document library as a reference library to see what is in other countries’ budget documents.
  • User story: Durdona is a researcher in central asia who formerly worked for the World Bank. She uses the Survey before having meetings with government officials. She is not only looking for information about her own country but also other countries, so that she can learn more about what it takes to compile fiscal documents and what they should contain.  She would like to see greater use of the Open Budget Survey, not just by government officials but also the media and other advocates.  She will likely also use the information in the survey to track the progress her country makes over time. 
  • International Donors encourage and nudge governments to be transparent. Typically large institutions such as USAID and the European Commission, they are involved in providing aid to various countries. Largely they are using the Survey to see if countries are meeting their transparency criteria or measuring progress towards reaching transparency. It also provides them with an objective way to have a dialogue about fiscal transparency with countries.
  • User Story: John works for an international donor and is an expert on policy and budget support. He will use a PDF of a survey in meetings with representatives of countries’ finance departments as he finds it a more objective way to talk about their standing with fiscal transparency. He largely uses the survey close to the times when they are released.  He is largely unaware of the other information that OBI compiles, such as Tracker and the document library, but would likely use them more if he was made more aware of them. He relies heavily on the OBI standards in making judgements about countries’ efforts to make their fiscal information available to the public.
  • Transparent Ministries of Finance, who serve as models for other governments trying to achieve openness and transparency. They also are motivated by accountability to citizens to remain transparent. They are finance institutions that purport to be implementing an open budget process. For them, the results are a way to stay focused and motivated.  They are especially interested in correlating results from similar countries, both in terms of political systems but also regions, etc.
  • User story: Arthit works for a Department of Finance in a southeast asian country.  His government made strong commitments to having an open budget and increasing citizen participation. He uses the survey to compare his country with others. He mostly uses the survey on his PC, both in the office and at home. He will check his country’s standing and browse to look at other country information. He often downloads the .csv file and sorts and corralates things himself. He uses Tracker as well, but finds its helpfulness limited as it’s not well integrated with the other information in the survey. He finds the survey incredbly important as his government is very motivated by their ranking.
  • Civil Society Organisations, who pressure countries to promote fiscal transparency, often while advocating for other issues. Are often involved in advocating on a focused set of issues.  For them, urging and advocating fiscal transparency is a tactic within a larger advocacy framework.  For instance, CSO’s focusing on children’s rights want to examine a governments budget to assure that they are allocating appropriate amounts to children’s agencies and services.  In this regard they use the survey to support their advocacy messaging and to indicate a government’s responsiveness to their issue.
  • User story: Frida works for a children’s rights organisation.  She uses the survey via a PC in her office to prepare for meetings with government officials and also to prepare reports about countries and their efforts to fund programmes aimed at benefitting children.  She will use the survey to point out a country’s lack of transparency.

The assumption at the beginning of this process is that the Open Budget Survey is used to pressure and engage governments to improve their ranking in the survey.  As a result of the user interviews, we were able to learn how much it is used as an educational resource for governments who are trying to understand what it takes to be fiscally transparent.  We were also better able to understand how to improve the website to make it less cumbersome for users to find the information they are looking for.

Be sure to check out our follow-up blog post to this: Technology Project Specifications and Social Change

More resources on understanding users: 

Do you have any examples of how you have helped social change efforts use technology to better engage their stakeholders?