Many web projects begin with a long list of requirements submitted by various stakeholders across the organisation. However, these ‘wishlists’ are often divorced from the needs of the user.
I spend most of my time working with clients on their digital strategy. These are large organisations, containing many stakeholders, spread over many different divisions and departments.
These organisations often lack strong digital leadership and their websites are crippled by internal politics relating to content and prioritisation.
The problem with weak digital leadership
This lack of leadership leads to two consequences. First, little consideration is given to users, with the emphasis placed instead on the agendas of different stakeholders. Second, the digital roadmap is in a constant state of flux with new prioritises constantly jumping to the front of the queue.
The best solution is to establish an empowered digital lead who has the authority to set an agenda and enforce it. Unfortunately in some organisations this is not going to happen. We therefore need an alternative approach, one that centres the development roadmap around user needs.
How to focus stakeholders on user needs using user stories
One way of doing this is to build with user stories.
A user card is a simple tool for focusing attention on user needs. It consists of a simple statement about the users task and ultimate goal.
A typical user card would read…
- I am a (type of user) e.g. Single mother.
- Who wants to (task on the site) e.g. view part time jobs on the site.
- So that I can (ultimate goal) e.g. so that I can apply for jobs that fit in with my childcare limitations.
These user stories can be the basis for all content and functionality on a site. So instead of stakeholders requesting certain functionality or content, they would write a user card that supports its creation. User cards replace a traditional wish list of content and functionality. The site is defined in terms of what user stories it needs to facilitate.
The benefits of user stories
Not only do user story cards focus stakeholders on the user, they also act as a filter for irrelevant content and functionality. If the stakeholder is unable to write a user story for the content or functionality they require, then it probably should not exist online.
Furthermore, this approach leaves it to the expert (the web professional) to work out the best way of meeting the users needs. In many cases they will come up with a more elegant solution for helping the user than the stakeholder will have thought of.
This stack of user cards becomes the basis for what is developed on the site and new cards can be added as things change within the organisation.
Solving the problem of shifting priorities
Although user story cards help focus the stakeholders on user needs, they don’t solve the problem of a constantly shifting set of priorities for the development roadmap. For that we need to consider democratising the process.
In an organisation that lacks strong central leadership, priorities are often defined by the person who shouts the loudest. Unsurprisingly this is not the best way to develop a website.
One option is to allow anybody within the organisation to not only submit user stories for inclusion in the site, but also vote on the priority of those stories. Stories that receive a lot of votes are considered more business critical and so move to the front of the development queue.
The web team will then systemically work through the stack of prioritised user stories, ensuring that users can complete their tasks and goals by building content and functionality that facilitate this.
Not a one size fits all solution
This is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. In many organisations the idea of democratising the development roadmap would be unacceptable. However, in organisations where transparency, inclusion and consultation are important this approach may avoid much of the internal politics that arise.
That said, even in more hierarchical organisations developing content and functionality based on user story cards is a wise move. This will not only ensure a more user focused website, it will also make sure content and functionality is relevant and effective. Ultimately if tests show a user can complete their defined task, we know that what has been built works. And that is more than most websites know!