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How to improve user needs

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Defra content design, Defra digital

Any new piece of content that the Defra content team produce is based on user needs. For 2016 we’ve introduced a Defra user needs panel made up of 2 or more content designers who will review all new user needs the team receives from SMEs ('subject matter experts'). We’ve borrowed the idea of a user needs panel from the Government Digital Service (GDS).

They’ll be checking that user needs are necessary, useful and clear. If they’re not, they’ll ask for more information from the SME, give advice on amending them or explain why they’re not needed.

Here are some guidelines to help you create good user needs that’ll lead to good content being published.

First, capture your need

When you write a user need, the aim is to ensure anyone can understand instantly what the user is trying to do or what they need to know, and why. You can read GOV.UK guidance on writing user needs.

For example, here’s a bad user need:

As a zoo owner, I need to get or keep a licence so I can operate my zoo legally.

This focuses on the final part of the activity, ie making an application, but doesn't say explicitly what the user needs to do.

Here’s a better version:

As a zoo owner, I need to meet certain standards of animal care so that I can get or keep a zoo licence.

So the user need gives an indication of what the user’s real task is, not just the paperwork part.

You need to include acceptance criteria with your user needs. These are details of any tasks or information which will allow the user to get to the end of their task.

When you've created your user needs and acceptance criteria, create a list of draft user needs and put them into the user needs template. You'll need to provide evidence to show that your draft needs are genuine user needs, eg include usage data for existing content or call centre data.

What the validation panel is looking for

The panel's basic checks are to make sure you've:

  • identified a user
  • used clear language
  • given sufficient detail for content designers to understand what it is and isn't about
  • provided evidence that there's demand for content to meet the user need, eg data from a call centre or Google Analytics

The panel also checks the user need isn't a duplicate, and doesn't create unwanted gaps or overlaps with other user needs or content.

Here’s an example of a user need that wouldn’t get past the panel:

As a local authority I need to know when Chapter 2 and 4 of the Industrial Emissions Directive apply so I know if I am supposed to regulate a given small waste incinerator.

What’s this about? Hard to say. The terms may be clear to a specialist, but as we know from research on reading, content is more useful when the terms are clear to everyone. It also seems incomplete: what about chapters 1, 3 and any that come after 4? Also, wouldn’t a local authority know what they’re supposed to regulate?

Refining needs further

Even if the need is intelligible and there's evidence for it, the panel may want to improve it. Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of possible objections.

  1. The action has too many elements. For example: 'As a chicken breeder I need to know how to register my flock, report diseases, transport chickens to market and dispose of dead chickens.' It's rare that a good user need is 'everything-I-need-to-know-about-x'. (It's often a giveaway for needs that are retro-fitted to regulations.)
  2. The action is ‘know what the rules are’, ‘understanding the regulations’ or ‘meeting all the requirements’. This lumps all users together without taking account of what they've already done and what they might need to do next. Try replacing these terms with the substance of what the user needs to do. So: ‘As a horse-owner, I need to know the rules on horse passports’ is better as ‘I need to know how to use my horse passport and when to update it.’ And may be better still as 2 separate user needs: 1 about using, 1 about updating.
  3. The goal for the user is 'so I can comply with the law’. All content we publish is about following the law, that's a given. So say what the penalty is for breaking the rules. If there's no penalty, the action might be advice, not guidance.
  4. The acceptance criteria go on for yards. True, some needs have lots, but if you've got more than 10, doublecheck you haven't got a new user need lurking. Just because it's related, it doesn't mean it's part of the same need. I found 'Done when I know how to reduce the risk of disease spread within a herd' lurking in the acceptance criteria of 'as a cattle keeper I need to know how to arrange bovine TB testing'. It's been shovelled in, but should be separate.
  5. The pattern of a user need doesn't match other similar needs. For example, we’ve got a need for sheep and goat-keepers who want to take their animals to shows, but not for pig-keepers. So are the rules different, or have we missed something?

Mapping valid user needs

When a need has been validated, we'll start designing content to meet it. We'll also put it in the Defra network user needs spreadsheet which maps how users interact with us.

We'll be measuring how effective these interactions are and using the data to help us decide when to change or withdraw content.

Get in touch with the content team if you'd like to talk about user needs or request a workshop.

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