In my time working at the Government Digital Service I have to admit I got a bit weirded out by the relentless focus on User Needs. It felt cultish. To an extent it still does.

But having had some time to reflect, and having spent some time working in different environments in the past six months, I’m starting to get it. I’m also starting to see how that for an organization to embrace the idea of user needs, particularly internally, it needs to shift its thinking from what Douglas McGregor coined Theory X management.

Theory X, in short, see management as an exercise in preventing an organization from being fleeced by its workforce. Employees are only out for themselves, and give them an inch and they will take it and more if they can. In a Theory X worldview, the approach to technology management is one that will focus around Business Needs – because if you focus on User Need then all the Users will ask for is gold-plated Ferrari laptops and the latest whizzy mobile phones.

The problem with relentlessly focusing on Business Needs is that is has a horrible bias towards the definition of unusable systems that get rejected by the untrustworthy workers for whom they were designed by proxy. Think of just about every timesheet or expenses system you have ever used and you’ll get the idea.

If you want to design things that will get used, you need to focus on the needs of the people that you want to use them. Companies increasingly (although still by no means always) get this when it comes to designing services to be used by clients and customers. Ultimately when it comes to customers its a risky strategy to design services on the basis of (providing) business needs because it will result in services that are poor, and customers that go elsewhere.

But maybe the reticence to focus on User Needs within organizations comes back to the prevalence of Theory X thinking that still seems to dominate business culture in so many ways. If we leave it up to the Users, they’ll define things that aren’t in the interests of the business.

McGregor’s counterpoint to Theory X was Theory Y. In Theory Y, employees are benevolent, with the interests of the common good at heart. If you approach systems design with User Needs at its core with a Theory Y mindset – well, users will be the best place to start when it comes to understanding how to get technology to be adopted to drive effective business change.

None of it is of course as simple as this: employees are both X & Y. Management styles needs to adapt and flex. Ouchi even coined a Theory Z. But User Needs approaches simply won’t work effectively if you don’t trust your users to be a bit Theory Y.


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