A food analogy to understand user research

User research is critical when redesigning public services. Dan Macfadyen from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection explains why using a food analogy.

Dan Macfadyen leaning over a desk looking at a sheet of paper.

When you go to a restaurant you usually need to make some decisions about what you’d like to eat. Do you feel like Italian, Spanish or maybe a burrito? When you get the menu, there are more decisions to make — do you want something spicy, maybe you’re vegetarian or have allergies to consider. Sometimes it can be quite the process, but you can easily choose something for yourself based on your needs.

Now, imagine you invite a friend over for dinner. How do you proceed? Do you immediately start preparing ingredients for a spicy chicken satay, or do you have a conversation with them first? Of course it would seem crazy, and quite rude, to create an entire meal for someone without understanding if they’re vegetarian or have a life-threatening allergy. At best, an overly spicy meal may go uneaten; at worst, your friend could be in for a trip to the emergency room.

Apart from potentially making you hungry, using this analogy can help us to explain why user research is absolutely critical when redesigning public services. When we only look at a problem from our own perspective, we risk creating a solution that we are happy with but which fails to deliver benefits or meet the needs of our users.

The aim of our project with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the DTO is to improve processes for Australian businesses engaged in international trade, starting with how we can make it easier and simpler to import goods into Australia.

As part of our Discovery phase, we have been hitting the pavement, getting out into workplaces and businesses, visiting and speaking with a wide range of our users. We’ve talked to importers, brokers, express carriers and freight forwarders to really understand industry pain points. The process has been incredibly enlightening and we’ve come to understand just how critical user research is to the design process. These visits have allowed us to really understand the context in which individuals and industry interact with government.

By embedding ourselves with people in the context of their interactions with government we are building real empathy for the complexities they face when completing applications or reporting to different agencies. This empathy allows us to see the real problems as they exist from the user’s point-of-view, rather than from a government perspective. Identifying these problems and having a real desire to resolve them based on the needs of real people leads to better solutions.

Our restaurant analogy can be helpful in understanding the impact that user research can have on system development or solving wicked problems in a government context. In a restaurant, spicy chicken satay may be a popular choice in the evening but sales may prove disappointing in a coffee shop serving breakfast. Sometimes through user research we discover that our proposed solution doesn’t deliver what users want. This can actually be a great outcome as it gives us the opportunity to develop alternative solutions that deliver lasting benefits to both industry and government.

Early insights of our research have allowed us to question why reporting requirements are duplicated across government agencies look into the paper-based government interactions that still remain in an industry seeking to operate in an entirely digital environment. We hope to be able to share more with you soon. Stay tuned.