MindMate: user-centered design in practice

by Rachel Cook

Today sees the launch of MindMate, a really rather marvellous new site for young people in Leeds with emotional wellbeing and mental health issues. It’s been a long time in the making and we’re rather proud of it, not least because it’s a good example of ‘user-centered design’, that magical phrase that wont go away.

Let’s talk briefly about what it means and how we put it into practice with the design and build of MindMate.

  • What is user-centered design?
    Let’s not labour over this point. It’s a design process led by users.

    Why ‘user-centered design’ might be a stupid term:
    1. Isn’t all design user-centered? Surely all websites are built for users – do we really need to make up a new Proper Industry Phrase?

    2. It sounds like one of those phrases that usually leads to us having to put a pound in the Thompson ‘Bullshit Business Speak’ penalty pot on the shelf (along with ‘Let’s action that’, ‘By close of play’ and ‘Ping me an email’. In fact, this reminds me that Ian owes about £5 for his flagrant abuse of ‘Low-hanging fruit’ last week).

    Why, actually, it’s not that stupid:
    Everyone knows that designing a website around its users is essential, and I can happily report that clients are increasingly including user engagement in their briefs, and sometimes even allow for it in their budgets and timeplans… Although not foolproof, there’s an increased understanding that it’s the best way to protect investment in a design project.

    Agencies also know the benefit. We’re here to represent the public – those real, live people who will be interacting with the brand/website. And that’s much, much easier to do when we have real, live people to tell us what they really think. There’s really nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth, and it’s much easier (and potentially less expensive) to change things that aren’t working before it’s rolled out to said horses.

    Despite the best of intentions, though, user-centered design doesn’t always happen. Whether it’s because time runs out, budgets won’t allow, or because user-engagement was only included in the first place to keep stakeholders happy; sometimes it really is nothing more than Bullshit Business Speak. In these cases a project will rely on mere assumptions about how users think.

    Now, we don’t mean to brag but we’re pretty good at knowing what works here at Thompson Towers – but no one can really know what an audience will think until it’s out there in the real world, and that can be a risky business.

  • An example of doing it really well:
    NHS Leeds South and East Clinical Commissioning Group (Leeds CCG) is one client of ours who really understand the benefits of a user-centered process. The success of their new online service, MindMate, is a prime example of user-centered design done well, and here’s a look at how the project took shape, and how users directly influenced it:

    1. The project was commissioned because users showed them the need for it
    Leeds CCG reviewed mental health provision in Leeds and found that both young people and healthcare professionals in Leeds needed help in navigating the complexities of the mental healthcare system. Finding their way and simply understanding what was available were top priorities. Having spoken with young people in Leeds, they decided they needed an online platform to help them find services and support. They wanted this to be designed and built with the 12-19 year old audience in mind from start to finish, ensuring it was exactly what they needed. Naturally, we were dying to get involved.

    2. Users chose us to work on the project
    The client started as they meant to go on. As well as a written proposal and interview, the pitch included two workshops with young people to test how we would fare working with young people. Unsurprisingly, it’s a lot like working with not-so-young people, but it does bring its own challenges, so this was a great way to make sure we could hack it. Having observed us, the client and the young volunteers selected us, and we were over the moon. It also gave us some really good initial insight into the minds of users.

    3. All decisions were checked with users – at least once
    Users needed to not only find the site easy to use, but they needed to love it too. This was key to ensuring that they’d engage with it and share it with friends and family. Much as we might hate to admit it, with the youngest member of the team working on the project being aged 25, we’re practically ancient, and we couldn’t rely on being able to put ourselves in the shoes of 12-19 year olds. So we didn’t make any decisions without consulting young people. We checked everything with them, from the topics that the site would include to the name, logo, illustration style and navigation.

  • At Thompson we employ a combination of Agile and Waterfall methodologies, which is perfect for a user-centered project like this one.* The design and build phases both consisted of a number of short sprints. At the end of each of these we tested with young people. We facilitated after-school, snack-fuelled workshops and did our best to keep them short and fun. The client was brilliant and trusted us enough to leave us to it, knowing that all decisions would be run past the most important people in the project, users, and that they wouldn’t let us do anything stupid…

    4. The project was really late
    Ouch. Better hope I’m not angling for a pay-rise with a title like that… But I’ll be honest, it really did go live much later than we had envisaged. Mainly, this was due to some areas of the site that proved particularly tricky to get right for users. When users told us that something wasn’t quite right and we hit a sticky spot, we had to pause, develop this element, test it with more workshops, and only then would we build it. A thorough process doesn’t always mean a quick process. Without the testing, we could probably have gone live several months earlier and the site would have been ok… but both we and client were happier to see it through properly and to make sure it was better than ok. Much better.

    5. The client expected a Phase 2 (and 3)
    Some of the best testing isn’t done in controlled workshops, but in the real world, with those real, live people I mentioned earlier. A lot of people forget this though, and that brands and websites need to grow and evolve to remain relevant and interesting.

    Leeds CCG knew that the MindMate site needed continual, staged development. They decided early on that a phased approach was best, opting for a soft launch two months before the formal launch in September. This period was used to gather feedback from young people, professionals and parents. This formed the basis for Phase 2 developments, carried out in the last few weeks.

    They’re still listening, too. Phase 3 is already in development, comprising mainly of new topic areas, interactive functionality, tools and games, as well as some newly-commissioned animations, all of which have been led by feedback from the young people.

    Hurrah! Success is guaranteed in a user-led project!
    That’s a huge lie, of course. There’s no way of guaranteeing success, but you can certainly do as the wonderful people at Leeds South and East CCG do. Put your efforts into making sure your users are considered at every point in the process of growing your brand and its touchpoints. Talk to them, and really, really listen.

    We’ll let you know how MindMate comes along.

    *Yes, I put some money in the pot for that Business Bullshit about Agile and Waterfall…

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