User-centred research: a map to the lost data of El Dorado

Looking out the window at the De Doorns Community Advice Office

Highlighting the value of human interaction and the irreplaceable role that it plays in product development.

When reviewing the process undertaken in the Case Management System project, it is important to look at the parts of the design process that worked well. This retrospective analysis is crucial as it allows us to focus on and replicate the approaches that worked while pivoting away from those that didn't. This article is the last in a series of four. The article discusses the value of implementing user-centered research and how this leads to better tool development when working on social innovation projects. 

Embarking on a journey to develop civic technology without intensive user research can be compared to departing on a journey to the lost city of El Dorado without a map. I’ve adopted the El Dorado analogy here as it embodies mysticism, ambiguity and a general lack of understanding, not unlike what is known about many of South Africa's smaller, far-flung or otherwise underdeveloped communities. Our "lost city" in this case is the trove of missing social data that would allow us to more easily develop and implement solutions in these communities.

Our "lost city" in this case is the trove of missing social data that would allow us to more easily develop and implement solutions in these communities.

As elusive as this data can be, it is incredibly valuable when it comes to developing solutions tailored to the societal issues facing these particular communities.

In 2021, Community Advice Offices South Africa (CAOSA) approached OpenUp to design and build a Case Management System for their community advice offices (CAOs). CAOs provide a space in the community where residents can receive legal advice or other paralegal services if they are having a particular issue or dispute. CAOSA explained to us that CAOs working in South Africa fulfil the essential role of providing communities with legal support mechanisms as part of an attempt to improve access to justice, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Despite their obvious importance of their work, CAOs experience many difficulties when it comes to the use of technology in their case workflow, digital storage of client information, and reporting.

...CAOs experience many difficulties when it comes to the use of technology in their case workflow, digital storage of client information, and reporting.

Our user interviews highlighted how these difficulties have resulted in a lack of clear standard operating procedures, and a dearth of aggregated data, which has had a significant impact on the ability of CAOs when it comes to reporting their results and applying for additional funding to keep them operational. 

Planning your exploration 

As with any maiden voyage, or in our case the development of experimental civic technology, understanding the correct general direction will only get you so far. Without a clear map precisely charting a path to our destination, any attempts at navigation may prove ineffective. The same is true of project design.

Understanding the correct general direction will only get you so far, and without a clear map precisely charting a path to our destination, any attempts at navigation may prove ineffective. The same is true of project design.

Suppose thorough user research is not undertaken to understand the environment, context, and steps needed to affect change. In that case, without sufficient knowledge of your user or a clear baseline with which to compare their experiences with, it might be difficult to know what success looks like, or be able to determine when it has been achieved or, more likely, missed entirely.

Through our user-centered research, we discovered that case information collected by CAOs is hidden in paper filing systems, therefore robbing CAOs of the benefits of digitally-stored data. This results in CAOs being isolated from the rest of the legal fraternity as they are unable to show the extent of their value to society by using aggregate case data. This also often means that many CAOs lack the necessary data to make a strong case for funding. 

User-centred research: our roadmap to understanding 

Before the development of the case management system could begin, our team first needed to decide on which design approach to take, much like one has to decide on which vessel to choose when attempting to sail to El Dorado. Due to the nature of the issue and the complexity of the environment in which the system needed to be implemented, a user-centred design approach was the most appropriate design method for the project. By using this approach we were able to ensure that we had a holistic understanding of the desires and needs of all stakeholders when designing the system.

By using this approach we were able to ensure that we had a holistic understanding of the desires and needs of all stakeholders when designing the system. 

During the research phase of the project, we explored previous case management systems that had been implemented within the CAOSAs advice offices. Although these systems may have been developed to carry out similar functions as the case management system we were designing, our research shows that no proficient user-centred testing was done before these systems were implemented and many of the features of the system were created to address the general needs of a wide variety of other industries. Due to this lack of engagement with users, the previous systems did not fulfil their needs, which resulted in poor uptake and sporadic usage. This research provides evidence of the importance of getting a clear picture of the environment that users operate in and the objectives they aim to achieve. 

OpenUp’s Case Management System project is a good example of why user-centered research is such an important and useful tool when working on projects that aim to solve social problems. Information gained directly from users helps to guide the development team designing the system. Without clearly focused user-centered research, developers, researchers, web designers and project managers are unable to accurately test their assumptions and determine whether the system they are designing is likely to fulfil the purpose for which it is intended. In contrast, adopting a user-centred approach brings us closer to designing a system that will fulfill its desired purpose.

By implementing a user-centered methodology to our research, we came to understand how to develop a system that could enable the processes adopted by CAOs to operate more efficiently and extend beyond merely accurately capturing data. By designing a system that fits its functional purpose, we can ensure that users will adopt the system implemented, as well as with the standard operating procedure that goes along with it. This is an example of how user-centered research was used as part of the map to guide the Case Management System project. 

User-centred research also helped inform our understanding of the current structures and processes at advice offices, as well as the digital skills and current needs of the community advice offices. Based on this feedback our developers are able to ensure that the system will be usable with varying levels of digital skills and technological capacities. 

In light of the user-centred approach we have taken in developing the case management system, it is difficult to understand why one would take a different approach. So much of the knowledge required to build the system came directly from stakeholders and users. Without this information, the development of a sustainable and effective Case Management System would be very difficult, if not impossible. Simply put, user-centred research for us has proved to be our map to the lost data of El Dorado.

Simply put, user centred research for us has proved to be our map to the lost data of El Dorado. 

Series Conclusion 

The series discussed a variety of subject matter about the implementation of user-centered design in the Case Management Systems Project. The articles focused primarily on highlighting the value of human interaction in product development and the irreplaceable role that it played in the project. The articles unpack different aspects of the project and the processes of research that were undertaken. If you have missed out on any of the articles along the way you can find them in the links below. 

OpenUp is committed to keeping our research process as transparent as possible. With this in mind, if you are interested in diving deeper into some of our research for this project linked above! Please let us know at shaun@openup.org.za, or jonathan@openup.org.za

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Highlighting the value of human interaction and the irreplaceable role that it plays in product development.

When reviewing the process undertaken in the Case Management System project, it is important to look at the parts of the design process that worked well. This retrospective analysis is crucial as it allows us to focus on and replicate the approaches that worked while pivoting away from those that didn't. This article is the last in a series of four. The article discusses the value of implementing user-centered research and how this leads to better tool development when working on social innovation projects. 

Embarking on a journey to develop civic technology without intensive user research can be compared to departing on a journey to the lost city of El Dorado without a map. I’ve adopted the El Dorado analogy here as it embodies mysticism, ambiguity and a general lack of understanding, not unlike what is known about many of South Africa's smaller, far-flung or otherwise underdeveloped communities. Our "lost city" in this case is the trove of missing social data that would allow us to more easily develop and implement solutions in these communities.

Our "lost city" in this case is the trove of missing social data that would allow us to more easily develop and implement solutions in these communities.

As elusive as this data can be, it is incredibly valuable when it comes to developing solutions tailored to the societal issues facing these particular communities.

In 2021, Community Advice Offices South Africa (CAOSA) approached OpenUp to design and build a Case Management System for their community advice offices (CAOs). CAOs provide a space in the community where residents can receive legal advice or other paralegal services if they are having a particular issue or dispute. CAOSA explained to us that CAOs working in South Africa fulfil the essential role of providing communities with legal support mechanisms as part of an attempt to improve access to justice, especially for the most vulnerable among us. Despite their obvious importance of their work, CAOs experience many difficulties when it comes to the use of technology in their case workflow, digital storage of client information, and reporting.

...CAOs experience many difficulties when it comes to the use of technology in their case workflow, digital storage of client information, and reporting.

Our user interviews highlighted how these difficulties have resulted in a lack of clear standard operating procedures, and a dearth of aggregated data, which has had a significant impact on the ability of CAOs when it comes to reporting their results and applying for additional funding to keep them operational. 

Planning your exploration 

As with any maiden voyage, or in our case the development of experimental civic technology, understanding the correct general direction will only get you so far. Without a clear map precisely charting a path to our destination, any attempts at navigation may prove ineffective. The same is true of project design.

Understanding the correct general direction will only get you so far, and without a clear map precisely charting a path to our destination, any attempts at navigation may prove ineffective. The same is true of project design.

Suppose thorough user research is not undertaken to understand the environment, context, and steps needed to affect change. In that case, without sufficient knowledge of your user or a clear baseline with which to compare their experiences with, it might be difficult to know what success looks like, or be able to determine when it has been achieved or, more likely, missed entirely.

Through our user-centered research, we discovered that case information collected by CAOs is hidden in paper filing systems, therefore robbing CAOs of the benefits of digitally-stored data. This results in CAOs being isolated from the rest of the legal fraternity as they are unable to show the extent of their value to society by using aggregate case data. This also often means that many CAOs lack the necessary data to make a strong case for funding. 

User-centred research: our roadmap to understanding 

Before the development of the case management system could begin, our team first needed to decide on which design approach to take, much like one has to decide on which vessel to choose when attempting to sail to El Dorado. Due to the nature of the issue and the complexity of the environment in which the system needed to be implemented, a user-centred design approach was the most appropriate design method for the project. By using this approach we were able to ensure that we had a holistic understanding of the desires and needs of all stakeholders when designing the system.

By using this approach we were able to ensure that we had a holistic understanding of the desires and needs of all stakeholders when designing the system. 

During the research phase of the project, we explored previous case management systems that had been implemented within the CAOSAs advice offices. Although these systems may have been developed to carry out similar functions as the case management system we were designing, our research shows that no proficient user-centred testing was done before these systems were implemented and many of the features of the system were created to address the general needs of a wide variety of other industries. Due to this lack of engagement with users, the previous systems did not fulfil their needs, which resulted in poor uptake and sporadic usage. This research provides evidence of the importance of getting a clear picture of the environment that users operate in and the objectives they aim to achieve. 

OpenUp’s Case Management System project is a good example of why user-centered research is such an important and useful tool when working on projects that aim to solve social problems. Information gained directly from users helps to guide the development team designing the system. Without clearly focused user-centered research, developers, researchers, web designers and project managers are unable to accurately test their assumptions and determine whether the system they are designing is likely to fulfil the purpose for which it is intended. In contrast, adopting a user-centred approach brings us closer to designing a system that will fulfill its desired purpose.

By implementing a user-centered methodology to our research, we came to understand how to develop a system that could enable the processes adopted by CAOs to operate more efficiently and extend beyond merely accurately capturing data. By designing a system that fits its functional purpose, we can ensure that users will adopt the system implemented, as well as with the standard operating procedure that goes along with it. This is an example of how user-centered research was used as part of the map to guide the Case Management System project. 

User-centred research also helped inform our understanding of the current structures and processes at advice offices, as well as the digital skills and current needs of the community advice offices. Based on this feedback our developers are able to ensure that the system will be usable with varying levels of digital skills and technological capacities. 

In light of the user-centred approach we have taken in developing the case management system, it is difficult to understand why one would take a different approach. So much of the knowledge required to build the system came directly from stakeholders and users. Without this information, the development of a sustainable and effective Case Management System would be very difficult, if not impossible. Simply put, user-centred research for us has proved to be our map to the lost data of El Dorado.

Simply put, user centred research for us has proved to be our map to the lost data of El Dorado. 

Series Conclusion 

The series discussed a variety of subject matter about the implementation of user-centered design in the Case Management Systems Project. The articles focused primarily on highlighting the value of human interaction in product development and the irreplaceable role that it played in the project. The articles unpack different aspects of the project and the processes of research that were undertaken. If you have missed out on any of the articles along the way you can find them in the links below. 

OpenUp is committed to keeping our research process as transparent as possible. With this in mind, if you are interested in diving deeper into some of our research for this project linked above! Please let us know at shaun@openup.org.za, or jonathan@openup.org.za

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