Concerning users: your neighbor's birthday was last week.

May 29, 2015

Over the past month I’ve been working on an application at Code for America and the city of Richmond, VA that aims to allow health clinics to share patient eligibility information with other health-related services (more about the screening process). Put simply, the goal is to remove redundancy in the referral process for patients and screeners.

Last week I had the opportunity to let potential users of our application interact with it and give their feedback. Currently, our users are screeners and case managers working at these safety-net clinics. The process involved observing them navigate through the program while executing specific tasks, recording their positive and negative reactions, and critically discussing the functionality and how it could improve or disrupt their workflow. The goal: let user needs replace our assumptions of how this potential tool can be helpful.

To be honest, my expectations going into the first round of user testing were mild at best. Thinking about all of the bugs or pieces of the application that didn’t work had me wondering if it was too early to start asking for user input. Surely if I could see the holes then I could fill them without having someone tell me?

I was wrong. Putting ourselves in the user’s environment completely flipped my approach. Without user input, we could still be building new components despite knowing their worth. We wouldn’t know to build a form input with a drop-down instead of a text field. There would be no shared understanding of their hesitancy to use this because it required them to do more work. We wouldn’t know that some offices block unknown web addresses, which would render this application useless.

Assumptions are dangerous. Letting them dictate your application’s functionality without early user testing is like assuming your neighbor really wants ice cream cake for her birthday. You show up on her doorstep to realize her birthday was last week. And she is lactose intolerant. You should have known that before buying an extra-large, vanity ice cream cake. User testing doesn’t cost more. It saves you from building unnecessary and useless software.

Incorporating user feedback into the application has led to some of the most rewarding development work I’ve done. Listening to their feedback has completely destroyed any hubris. As I begin to understand the complications from our user’s perspective, I am feeling more connected to the work.

Empowering our users by giving them space to share their thoughts has transformed annoying bugs and refactors into powerful enhancements that may lead to a smoother, more effective screening process and subsequently, quicker access to health.

Don’t get me wrong, ice cream cake is really tasty. Especially the crunchy pieces at the bottom. And way better than standard cake. But it doesn’t work for everybody, especially if it’s no one’s birthday.

I’m becoming addicted to ice cream cake our users. And looking forward to more feedback.

ice cream cake

Photo by MissMessie from Flickr

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