Design thinking in Cape Town

The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) in South Africa will be using mySociety’s Alaveteli software in their latest project – and, with a bit of match-making from mySociety, the preparation period has been rigorous.

Alaveteli is our open source Freedom of Information platform. It underlies our own UK-based WhatDoTheyKnow, and right-to-know sites around the world. Alaveteli sites make it easy for citizens to ask questions of those bodies who operate under Freedom of Information law and, significantly, they automatically publish all responses.

Dassies (rock-dwelling hyrax) by Arthur Chapman

Before any coding or implementation began, we got ODAC together with the “Governance Collaboratory”, an initiative from the d.school in Stanford University that seeks to apply the “design thinking” approach to projects that intend to make government more open, more effective, and more accountable. We’ve observed quite a few Alaveteli installs, but while we’re always on hand to offer support and answer development queries, we’ve never prepared the ground quite like this.

Gabriella Razzano of ODAC welcomed Jeremy Weinstein and Jenny Stefanotti, both from the d.school, to Cape Town for an intensive few days of assessing how the design thinking approach could shape the project. Two staff from mySociety also went along — Paul (our Head of International Projects) and Dave (one of our developers) — because we’re keen to understand how the d.school’s approach might improve the way we go about building our new projects.

Now, at mySociety we already know a thing or two about building civic systems that engage with the public, because we have considerable experience in the field. We are expert at combining user experience and current tech to create simple, usable interfaces (see our DIY blog for some example details). We conduct usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. But actually much of this is reactive, iterative design: it’s being applied after the core product has already been built.

Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is purely imaginary. As a result, the site inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of its creators. This won’t necessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpected things that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.

This is uncomfortable for those of us used to building loose iterations from the bottom up and refining them later. It means introducing empathy and rapid, offline prototyping much earlier in the process than we’d normally expect. Certainly in the commercial world it’s common for a company to prototype against their target consumers early on. But for civic projects such as mySociety’s, it’s often much harder to identify who the users will be, for the impressive yet overwhelming reason that often we are building our platforms for everybody. This can lead to generalisations which may miss specific issues that could make a huge difference to some users.

The d.school advocates a “learning by doing” way of teaching, so the days we spent in Cape Town were a busy mix of practice as well as theory. We interviewed people who had a variety of reasons to want to make Freedom of Information requests, including an activist who’s already used South Africa’s Freedom of Information legislation to make requests regarding housing projects, the head of a rape crisis centre, and law students who may well become a nation’s most empowered activists. From these interviews we isolated specific needs, which at this stage were nearly all unconnected to any digital or web requirement. Jeremy and Jenny then led us through the process of rapid, analogue prototyping intended to address those needs.

Inevitably we could only scratch the surface in the few days we had available, but we hope ODAC will be able to apply the process to the development of their project, just as we aim to use it to benefit the work on ours.

Image credit: Procavia capensis (Rock-dwelling Hyrax or Dassie) by Arthur Chapman, released under CC BY-NC-SA on Flickr.

They tell visitors that dassies such as these live atop Table Mountain. We went up there and saw none. Similarly, Freedom of Information requests exist in South Africa under the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000 (PAIA), but most people have never seen one — fewer than 200 PAIA requests were made nationally in 2012. This tenuous comparison allows us to illustrate the blog post with a cute picture of fuzzy mammals.