Understanding user needs

Understanding what users need from the product or service you are building is vital to its success.

Who are our users? They are people who need to use the services you are working on. When designing or iterating a government service, start by learning about current and future users. 

To do this, you need to understand users from their point of view - and not through the lens of assumptions or what the project owner wants. 

Who to include in your research 

Groups to consider including in user research are people who:

  • currently use the service
  • don’t currently use the service but may need it in the future
  • have problems using the service
  • work in the service (for example, call centre staff)
  • help others use the service (for example, caseworkers, legal professionals or charity workers)

To create an effective service, you must research your users’ end-to-end journey. This should include non-digital ways they interact with your service such as phone, post, and face-to-face experiences. 

Focus on users who have problems using the existing service and its products. This will help you create a simpler, clearer and faster service that more people can use.

Make your research inclusive

Understanding and being inclusive of diverse user groups should be an ongoing consideration. Always ask what the user need is and how to meet this need.

You need to learn about all your users to build a good service. 

  • Find out about people with access needs or who don’t currently use digital services.
  • Be careful not to exclude user groups or make assumptions about what services they might need.
  • Recruit participants that reflect the population and choose accessible research locations.

Diversity in user research

Diverse groups include:

  • people with low digital skills
  • people with low literacy
  • older people or seniors
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
  • people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds
  • people with cognitive or physical disability
  • people who are blind or have a vision impairment
  • people who are deaf or have a hearing impairment
  • people living in rural or remote locations
  • people accessing the internet on mobile devices


Accessibility issues affect many users across a variety of demographics.

Accessibility issues may include:

  • web content that is difficult to understand
  • websites not tailored to screen readers
  • websites that are difficult to navigate using smartphones
  • content too big to download with a low data limit

By addressing accessibility and diversity, we can make our content simple and easy to understand.

You can find guidance about writing for inclusivity in the Content Guide.

Recruiting participants with access needs

You must conduct research to understand the experience of people with disability. Make sure you find out their needs ahead of time so you can make sure they can take part. For example, they might need to:

  • bring someone with them
  • use assistive technology
  • bring a service dog

What your research team should find out

Begin by looking at as many different users of your service as possible. That way you’ll see the entire spectrum of users, from the mainstream to the edges. You should aim to speak with as many of your user groups as possible in the Discovery phase.

Aim to find out:

  • Who the people are who are most likely to use your service
  • The job or task they are trying to do when they use your service? 
  • How are they trying to do it currently. What pain points are they are experiencing? 
  • How does their life or work influence what they do and how? 
  • How do they use existing or similar services? 
  • The opportunities to remove or reduce pain points?  
  • How you can better meet the users' needs and improve the user experience  

Your research findings will then allow you to test and validate possible solutions with prototypes. 

Insights research should generate 

  • During Alpha you will define users and their needs, and an agreed minimum viable product (MVP) 
  • During Beta, research will influence changes to the service based on usability testing 
  • Data from research and testing will also help you understand which parts of the task users are finding difficult. This helps you revisit the design to reduce friction and increase success for users. 

Keep researching 

As you progress through the agile delivery process, confirm and refine user needs.

Prioritise your user needs by focusing on what’s most important for your users so you don’t create an unmanageable list of user needs.

Remember to plan and budget for continually testing the system. You also need to know how you will measure and monitor your service to ensure it continues to serve its users well. 

Share your findings 

Sharing your research is a great way to keep your team, stakeholders and others in your organisation up to date with the insights that are shaping the development of the service. 

You can present your findings by creating:

  • experience maps that show how users interact with existing services
  • user profiles that describe groups of users with similar behaviours and needs
  • case studies that explore individual experiences

Involve as many relevant people as possible in research to keep the project on track by: 

  • reducing the risk of personal preferences and untested assumptions 
  • limiting the influence of individual stakeholders. 


Related videos

YouTube Icon What types of research are we talking about? - Human-centred design workshop

Published on Jan 29, 2018

Duration: 2:23

This content is based on work by the Digital Transformation Agency (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0)

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