What is a ‘user’?

Users aren’t only the public – anyone involved directly in a service needs it to ‘just work’

17 May 2022

Users come in all shapes and sizes … you might need to consider a number of them on your service © Unsplash

We need to talk about users

As the Standards team at CDPS, we need to:

Modern ways of creating products and services are focused on user needs. The standards team will be providing guidance to help organisations and teams become more adept at their own ‘user-centred design’ (UCD). We want users to be at the centre of the design process, rather than designing around an off-the-shelf solution, particular technology, existing process or gut feeling.

Don’t make users think too hard

This approach means that, when designing any type of service, we’re always thinking from users’ perspectives: what they need from that service and how that service will meet that need. The service could be a case management system for public servants, a website for citizens or, in the case of standards, written content for our service manual.

User-centred design seeks solutions that don’t require the user to think too much about what they’re doing. The design is intuitive and logical and provides the user with the outcome they are looking for with minimal effort. It just works! There is no such thing as a bad user, only bad design.

CDPS’s standards guidance will help organisations and teams become more user-centred.

Users in all shapes and sizes

Users come in all shapes and sizes, and you might have to consider many different users of a service.

When the standards team talks about users, we mean all those groups of people who are involved in a service achieving its goal. They could be citizens seeking a particular outcome, staff following an internal process, third parties processing data, customer services managing citizens’ expectations, and so on.

There’s no such thing as a bad user, only bad design © Unsplash

For example, if you are creating a service for medical patients, your service may need to consider the needs of the:

All of the above are examples of ‘users’. They use and derive value from the service provided, either directly or for the purposes of doing their job.

Why we don’t say ‘end-user’

We are deliberately retiring the term ‘end-user’, which you may have heard in the context of user-centred design. An end-user was originally interpreted as the person receiving the benefit of the service. It originates from consumer products where the purchaser is not necessarily the consumer of the product. In the public sector, end-user has been broadly translated as ‘the public’.

Depending on your sector, you might have a different concept of those users who are ‘the public’. In central government it might be ‘citizens’ and in local government ‘residents’. In health it’s ‘patients’. However, it’s important to note that though the ‘public’ might well be an important group of users when designing – and they’re arguably deriving the most benefit from the service – they’re not the only group of users designers need to consider. The staff who use the service also need it to ‘just work’. If it doesn’t work, the ‘public’ might not end up with the intended outcome.

To avoid prioritising one user group over another, the standards team is not differentiating ‘end-users’. They are all simply ‘users’.

Needs must?

When designing, we must balance the needs of these different users and weigh up the potential impact of not meeting some of them. For example, adding in expensive or complicated features to a service for the sake of a small percentage of outliers may not be value for money – but that does not mean that you should avoid considering them at all.

There are other parties whose needs designers should factor in but who are not users. These are policymakers, ministers, senior leaders and so on who are requesting or paying for the service. While the specific features or aesthetics of the product or service should not be designed around their views, their input is vital as they might be closest to the problem that the service is addressing. They have a significant contribution to make in clarifying the problem and the needs that arise from it.

Has the ‘end-user’ had its day? How do you prioritise needs? Join the debate in the comments and help to shape our service manual

Read more

Do we need to drop the ‘user’? by NHS Digital

How to Think About Product Design With the End User in Mind, by Emma Rudeck

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  1. Susan McFarland-Lyons says:

    And just yesterday we followed this up with a debate at CDPS as to whether ‘end user’ was indeed a redundant term. The result was a resounding Yes at 16:1.

  2. Sarah Herman says:

    A really interesting debate!

    When looking at a particular product or service, as you say there may be many different users. All users have goals – and those goals may be complimentary, agnostic of each other or they can be in conflict with each other.

    As a user researcher it helps to understand the different users and their goals within a product, service or environment. This understanding makes it easier to make informed choices about which goals can be supported and why. Not all users are equal – some have more power than others. Whose goals really matter and why?

    Sometimes the term “end user” is used to imply “captive user” – the person who is forced to use the product or service you are providing. If we try and understand the interrelationship between all of our users’ goals then hopefully it can be possible to make better designed products and services and to understand if there are tradeoffs that needs making – those tradeoffs can be done in the least destructive way.