Can user research open up open data?

If open data providers are concerned about how often their data is used, that opens the door to user research. But are they more interested in finding our what else people could do with the data? That’s a much harder task. The user research questions could easily bias the data.

User research in open data

Could it spiral out of control, as the definition of “user” grows too wide?

There’s a fundamental challenge around user research for open data: what would you do if you knew? also, many open data users are highly technical – is that something that makes it harder to run user research, if you’re not yourself technical?

That raises the question of “who is the user”? And maybe research could help broaden that base. There are people with emerging open data needs that might not get what they want though existing pathways determined by technical users. So, could you take your potential user communities on that journey, through research, and figure out how to provide access for them?

For example, you might have thought about food hygiene data from the perspective of a mobile phone user – but how about from a journalist doing a story about local establishments?

Dealing with public unconscious incompetence

The vast majority of the UK population are “unconsciously incompetent” about open data – you’re likely to get “MPs Expenses” as the only example. Is there an inherent need for evangelism in the research, as you need to educate the public?

Maybe – and maybe not. User research and stakeholder management are two different things, and when you slide the two into one another problems happen. If you end up training users rather than researching their needs, you miss all the potential insight you could get from the research. Evangelism is dangerous here. You have to figure out how to walk the line, but just know it is there is a big step in the right direction.

Stakeholder stress

If you have multiple tools using the data, each used by different stakeholders with very disparate needs from the data, it becomes more difficult, because the user needs vary – and much of the communication is directly with those stakeholders. And there might be many other users you don’t know about – that’s a consequence of the liberal licensing that open data requires. The more friction at the start, the more people driven away, and that makes it harder to engage with those users, because you can’t know who they are.

The ideal situation for most users is to arrive, and find exactly the answer they want. But that’s not really going to work – and that’s where mapping potential user journeys into the dat comes into play. Engaging with the developer and technical communities might give good insights into what’s in the data, and where we should focus our attention. Could we have data explorers that allow the non-technical users to find what’s there – and now if they could find their answer? Engaged citizen want to use the data to find truth about the society, technical users want to build things with the data. These are not incompatible use cases, because both are ultimately around transparency, but they are two very different pathways.

The myth of simple interfaces

We live in the myth that our interfaces are simple. They’re not. We’ve just learnt them so well they feel simple. So, trying to build simple interfaces is setting us up to fail – we need to help people work their way into our data.

Data providers don’t need to care about open data – it’s often not part of their organisational goals. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care, just that they aren’t driven to do so. And that’s a challenge that stops some reaching out to the wider potential user community. It’s a shame that it’s ended up such a low priority for many organisation to make the information they already publish more useful – because it would give a better return on the time already invested in creating it. There could be all sorts of innovative uses that emerge that could benefit the organisation in turn.

Remember – even if you don’t know who your users are, there are organisations who specialise in doing that for you. If you have the money, you can buy in that expertise.

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