What we learnt implementing of a user-centred design approach building a Case Management System for South Africa’s rural paralegals
What were we building, and for who?
At the beginning of 2021 OpenUp collaborated with Community Advice Offices South Africa (CAOSA) and ten of their Community Advice Offices (CAOs). The purpose of this collaboration was to design and build a Case Management System to help CAO paralegals better manage the information that they collect from their clients.
This post is the first of a series of four aimed at exploring the research, design and development that has taken place in the case management system project thus far. In this series we highlight the different processes of project design and the role that they played in the development of the system. The aim of this series is to explain the process that the team went through and how it helped inform and guide the development of the system. We will take you through our experience of developing technology within a community context and how important it was to use a research focused design approach.
In this article, we examine the design approach used in the project and all the team members that came together to develop the system. We will discuss the approach and highlight some of the key questions that helped the team to begin the process of designing and building the system.
1. Adopting a User-Centred Design Approach
A User-centred design approach is an interactive project design method in which the development team places emphasis on the users and their needs in each phase of the project design process. In the Case Management System project, the implementation of a user-centred design approach has been useful for a number of reasons;
- It allowed us to explore the working environment and the needs from the perspective of the users.
- Due to the unique context in which we were implementing the system it was very beneficial to have direct access to the end users of the system as it helped us explore the users intended interactions with the system.
- Through rapid testing and a validation of concepts OpenUp’s designers and developers were able to test concept ideas, designs, and system architecture against research data collected directly from the intended end-users of the product.
- By consistently sharing and testing our research with stakeholders and the working group we are able to ensure that the system is designed to meet the requirements of both CAOSA and the CAOs of the working group.
- By applying a user-centred design approach we learnt first hand how important it is to understand the different users' intentions for a system and how to get them to buy-in to using the system in their own daily workflow.
Adopting a user-centred design approach requires not only clear and concise communication between organisation representatives from OpenUp, CAOSA, and the working group, it also requires constant internal communication between researchers, the project manager, the development team, and the product owner. The OpenUp team made use of multiple networking tools and applications such as Google Meets, Trello, Slack, and Google Drive. Using tools like these allowed us to have constant and consistent relaying of information. Without clear and concise pathways to relay information the user-centred design approach would not have had the same impact.
2. Innovation and the "Working Group"
A key aspect of the user-centred design process was the creation of the Data and Knowledge Working Group (“the working group”.) This group was made up of community advice offices (CAOs) working with Community Advice Offices South Africa (CAOSA) from each of South Africa's nine provinces. The working group serves as a representation of a wider national community of advice offices.
The early stages of the project saw the coming together of ideas and plans from both OpenUp, CAOSA, and the working group. In the early stages of the project it was very useful working directly with the users when coming up with the best suited innovation as it gave us the chance to test our ideas directly with future users of the system.
Through many early meetings and discussions, it was envisioned that a case management system-type tool would be the best-suited solution to the problem being experienced by stakeholders.
3. Implementing User-centred research
User-centred research is a research process that is conducted directly with the intended end users of a product. This research approach helps developers gain a deeper understanding of the project and the needs of everybody involved. From the end users to key stakeholders and domain experts, user centred research aims to provide the development team with a fuller picture of the environment and purpose that the system needs to provide for.
In every stage of designing the product user feedback from the working group and CAOSA representatives was taken into consideration. The majority of research conducted was done through questionnaires, meetings, interviews, and emails with domain experts and key stakeholders.
Throughout the research process documents, in the form of simple reports, were developed using data collected from CAOSA and the working group. These documents helped the team answer important questions about how our system is intended specifications of the system - based on the requirements of the system (from all stakeholders) and the environment in which the system needs to function.
3.1 Who are the Users and what do they need?
When embarking on the project we had to explore important questions to help guide the design and development of the system.
Focusing directly on our end users helped us gain a better understanding of the current structure and skills of the community advice office workers (CAOWs) of the working group. We contacted working group members directly to collect information about their workflow, technological capacity and digital skills.
From this initial research developers were able to foresee areas that may cause future difficulty or that would require further research. User centred research also provided developers with baseline information to form an understanding of the basic features that the system needed.
This research was important as it helped narrow down the parameters in which the system could be built. For example, when exploring the CAOs, the research brought up two important aspects; 1) lack of technological hardware, 2) internet connectivity issues. From this information it was important that we were able to design the system that would accommodate all CAOs.
3.2 How is the system intended to function?
Another important feature of the user-centred design approach is that it allowed us to explore the various intended interactions for the system before building. Defining the interaction requires research into future system operations, functionality, and feature exploration. By accessing the users who will be interacting with the system we can shorten the pathway to defining intended interactions.
This research helped developers gain a better understanding of the specifications needed to make the system operational and useful for all intended users. Information obtained from the research helped inform areas that would need to be further explored before development of the system could begin.
By discussing the various types of cases experienced at advice offices we learnt a lot about the information that needs to be captured by the system. This research also helped us gain an understanding around the timeline and case states experienced by clients who come into the advice offices.
3.2 Exploring the (UX) and User Interface (UI) with the Working Group.
Designing the UI is the phase of the project where the first picture of the perceived application is developed. In order for developers to build out the application they must first get an understanding of the various screens, daily tasks, and language that the system must provide for. Our UX/UI design team built an interactive webflow mockup to test research assumptions about what users would find most useful. Later in the series we will further explore this innovative technique and what we learnt through its implementation.
In this project we learnt first-hand the numerous benefits of implementing a user-driven design approach to develop a social solution. Information gained directly from the users helped guide the initial architecture and features of the system, this helped ensure that the system would be useful to both the CAOs and CAOSA. The user-centered research that was used throughout the design phase was crucial for the onboarding of the working group as it increased feelings of investment and a sense of ownership of the product.
The impact of a user-centred design approach not only assists development of great applications and systems from a design and functionality perspective, it also helps develop a process of onboarding of the working group (future primary users) and other important stakeholders of the system. This is an important output of using a user-centred approach, as having the buy-in of users is integral to project sustainability.
Next in the series
In our next article, we focus on user-centred research. We will take an in-depth look at the key stages of user-centred research and explain how they were crucial in the design and development of the case management system.