Are User Requirements the key to unlock your innovation?

28 April 2021 - Chris Rourke

key entering a lock

Now that UX and user-centred design (UCD) are recognised as core components to successful product and service design, we should consider how one part of the UCD process – User Requirements - can enable innovation as well as usability.

What are User Requirements?

Formally defined, they are requirements that provide the basis for designing and evaluating an interactive system based on the user needs – that is the things you discovered in your research with users near the start of a project. Informally, I see them as the important throughline that connects your user research to the features and capabilities of your solution.

Many projects include initial user research to better understand users, their context and their current pain points. Later in the project usability testing identifies changes needed to your solution to iteratively refine designs until they are released.

But what about that part in the middle where project teams ‘turn the corner’ from researching users to designing solutions? Do you just stop doing the former and start doing the latter? Before everyone gets their Sharpies out and starts sketching, its worth pausing to ask – For this product, what exactly is a good user experience? What are the criteria to determine what is a good (or even just acceptable) user experience? Leaving these questions unanswered may lead to unsatisfactory outcomes and unsuccessful products especialy when the deadline approaches and the threshold of what constitutes a good user experience becomes more flexible.

A vision of success

It may sound like typical management speak but the question ‘What does success look like?’ is one that deserves to be asked in the context of user experience and usability. The essential role of user requirements is to answer that question from the users’ perspective. When considering the product or service you are designing, success looks like something that meets the user requirements you have set.

User Requirements in the UCD process

Below is the user-centred design process described in the international standard ISO 9241- 210. Although this appears to show a strict waterfall approach, this is a highly iterative process that goes through five main phases with many potential deliverables along the way.

The Human centred design process of ISO 9241 -210The Human centred design process of ISO 9241 -210

The phase that is often undervalued is the one labelled ‘Specify the user requirements’. Here the project team takes stock of the user research information gathered during the previous phase (Specify the context of use) and decides what that means for the solution. What do the research-based user needs mean for the solution we’re designing? The solution will need to meet various requirements, including those based on the organisational rules, regulations, safety and more. The user requirements are those that the solution should meet in order to stay true to the user needs that you discovered. From the user experience perspective, they are the best attempt at answering that question: What does success look like?

Providing a measurable metric

Documenting the user requirements helps the project team commit to implementing the features and functionality that will allow users to meet their needs. Importantly, they are measurable so that at any stage after creating the user requirements you can ask ‘Does our solution have something that meets user requirement X?’.

For example, your user research may show that users strongly desire the ability to access their previous transactions with a company. Given that as a user need you can create a corresponding user requirement and ask at any stage – from your first prototype to the released product – ‘Is there some way for users to access their previous transactions’? The user requirement acts as a constant reminder that something needs to be put in place to meet that user need. Even the process of considering what the user requirements should be helps to focus minds in the product team as they agree on what success looks like from the user’s perspective.

Open minds for innovation

User requirements are a useful backstop, helping ensure that features or functionality of some type will be put in place to meet the original user needs. However, because there may be more than one way to achieve this, user requirements can help drive innovation. User requirements should be presented in a way that does not assume how that requirement will be met, i.e what type of widget on the interface will allow it to be done.

The power of user requirements is striking this balance of clearly stating the user requirement for your solution but not specifying exactly how that requirement will be achieved. That is the space where, with open minds that steer clear of presumptions and previous solutions, true innovation can occur. Through brainstorming and other means, various solutions can be considered valid, so long as they meet the user requirement.

Putting user requirements to work for you

If you are involved with product or service design, it is worth considering how well you evolve user needs, captured from research, into user requirements that serve as a constant reference point to assess your solution design. Are your requirements described in a way that does not presume certain solutions? Do they serve as the basis from which, when combined with creative and open minds, true innovation can be achieved?

If you have any questions on how to improve your user-centred design process, please get in touch. Our team of user experience and service design consultants can help you implement the changes that will help you deliver true customer-centricity and a better user experience for your products and services.

Want to learn more about User Requirements?

Join our free breakfast briefing Thursday 29 April at 10 AM when Thomas Geis, an expert in User Requirements Engineering, presents more on this topic. For further information sign up here.

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