User-centred IT: why 'best practice' isn't good enough

In too many workplaces, IT disappoints users. Unreliable internet access. Clunky laptops. Locked down, minimally usable tools.

Many have to tolerate IT which is far inferior to what they take for granted in their personal lives.

It’s perhaps not surprising: IT in organisations is often not oriented towards the user - culturally, organisationally, and in everyday working practice and language. In the operating models for IT that exist in most large or established organisations, the user is an after-thought.

And so, user-centred IT isn’t a very common phrase.

Yet, the practice of user-centred IT can make IT better for users. It can richly inform the decisions on which products to buy (or not to buy), how to configure, how to integrate, and how to take commercial products, and make them feel like services provided within the organisation, and by the organisation.

Changing this is as much about what IT practitioners can do to change how they deliver, as it is about budget holders, commissioners and leaders resetting their expectation about what IT is.

An AI-generated image displaying 'User centred IT,’ as imagined by Midjourney 5.2
'User centred IT,’ as imagined by Midjourney 5.2

What is IT?

IT is most associated with consumer commodity technologies, such as laptops, email, WiFi and big IT vendors such as Microsoft - things you tend to buy, not things you build (like bespoke software systems).

Instead of users, IT in organisations tends to focus on a combination of technology, project delivery, procurement, and contract management. This focus is historic because IT has long been thought of as a ‘shop’: A costly part of the organisation, where ‘the business’ goes to buy things it needs from ‘the IT department’.

This ‘shop’ mentality reduces IT to its commodities. Instead of a carefully managed and renewed fleet of devices, you just have “laptops”. Instead of a carefully configured, integrated, migrated and internally-communicated finance tool, you just have “an ERP”. By reducing IT to commodities, it’s easy to lose the user, yet the institution’s ability to influence the user experience lies mostly around the commodity: In configuration, on-boarding and off-boarding, supporting with problems, or responding to ideas for change.

What is user-centredness?

User centeredness is most associated with design - a practice which commonly encourages creativity, experimentation, and deep understanding of problem spaces, all oriented towards users and what they’re trying to achieve. It’s at home when designing user interfaces - apps, websites, ‘digital services’ - where below the surface of the interface is the malleable medium of bespoke software, and the sense that you can create anything you can imagine.

Naive user-centred thinking expects a malleable medium, expects unbounded creativity. IT doesn’t work like this, as it’s grounded in commodities.

Putting users at the heart of IT

Despite these historic associations, users should still be at the heart of IT. Follow any path through the inter-connected software, configurations, data and hardware, and you’ll always find a user at the end. IT exists to serve the users of your organisation.

Making IT user-centred isn't straightforward. Largely because it’s counter-cultural: It goes against the wider industry grain. User-centred IT is also unique. You can’t simply copy and paste the ideas, principles and practices from domains such as software development, into the context of IT. You can’t provide a fleet of laptops the same way you build an app.

Nonetheless, there are actionable steps your organisation can take to transform its IT to become more user-centred. 

Here are some suggested ways to get started.

1. Meet your service users needs

In the world of IT, it’s very easy to get lost in the idea of so-called ‘best practice’ - picking generically ‘best of breed’ systems and delivering them with a cutting edge ‘target operating model’. The reality is that there is plenty of opportunity and choice around how to design and adapt IT to meet the needs of the users you serve.

How you buy, configure, maintain and improve IT is a choice. How you ‘wrap’ IT with additional awareness, training, helpdesks, and feedback channels is a choice. Finally, in some circumstances, at the right scale and with the right market conditions, your insight into users can even influence how vendors design their products.

These choices about delivering IT are best made through insight into your service users’ needs. These insights start with asking questions which orient IT towards the user:

  • What is it like to start a new job in the organisation, get a new device, and start using all the corporate systems, tools and information sources?

  • What is the experience of connecting to the internet in your offices?

  • How quickly and painlessly can a simple expense claim be made?

The methods for answering these questions can range from informal requests for feedback about users’ experience of IT, through to the formal application of techniques like user research and laboratory usability testing. The scale and style of how you understand users needs to match your organisational context.

This kind of thinking which puts user experience at the heart of IT design has been transformative in domains such as cyber security. The most modern cyber security thinking seeks to understand user behaviour and motivations, and design secure services which take account of this. This is in contrast to still common approaches of judging and punishing users for a lack of best practice ‘cyber security awareness’.

2. Form enduring teams around services to users

Forming enduring teams around services to users such as “provide access to the internet” or “provide staff with a set of collaboration tools” aligns people to broad and enduring missions. This differs from the more common practice of aligning teams to specific contracts or categories of technology.

Teams that provide services to users are easier to empower and can have clearer accountability. They can have a proper long-term strategy, less bounded by specific technologies, skillsets or contracts. The result is greater capability and space for the team to effectively work around the needs of users.

Example: The internet-access-as-a-service team

A team who provide access to the internet to staff, and users of your organisation's buildings. In practical terms, in 2024, this would likely include WiFi access points, ethernet cabling and comms rooms. In 2035 this might look very different, but access to the internet is likely to be an enduring user need. The responsibilities of this team combines everything from the most everyday (e.g. responding to incidents, patching firmware), to the most ambitiously strategic (trying a whole new form of technology).

In larger organisations, this team might rely on ‘platform services’ provided by other teams, allowing teams to remain a productively small size (around 7-12 people).

Yet this way of organising IT teams is uncommon, particularly in larger organisations. More commonly, teams are formed around temporary projects (e.g. ‘the 2024 WiFi refresh team’) or enduring single-professional functions (e.g. ‘the Solutions Architecture team’). Sadly, it’s also common for a sense of team to disappear entirely, replaced by a culture where people are simply “resources” whose time is sliced up and assigned by managers.

Forming teams around services to users cannot mean rejecting projects and project management practice. There are good reasons why IT is more project oriented. For example, high-value procurement, and physically laying cables and installing comms rooms both need a lot of planning and coordinating plans with others. But in many areas of IT, there are opportunities to learn, and to change the plan adaptively.

Modern IT operating models must combine the need to plan, with the need to adapt - combining aspects of project management with aspects of agile methodology and design thinking. Organisations will struggle to find such an operating model ‘off the peg’ - you’ll need to shape it for your own context.

3. Form multidisciplinary teams

It follows naturally from forming teams around services to users, that teams must be more multidisciplinary - including, where practical, the skills and experience needed to deliver efficiently and effectively for users. Multidisciplinary working means having people working together, day-to-day, as teammates, when they have very different professional backgrounds. For example, a network engineer working day-to-day with a procurement professional on the same team.

Multidisciplinary teams have a better collective sense of users’ needs. They can bring very different perspectives on user needs from different team members, and so, make better trade-offs decisions. For example, cyber security and usability often find themselves in tension - how many questions do you ask a user before you trust they are who they say they are? If cyber security and usability professionals are teammates, they can find a trade-off effectively.

Whereas if a usability professional has to handover their work to a cyber security professional in a separate team for review, this can lead to inefficiencies, conflict, or avoiding processes entirely and creating risk for users.

4. Allow users to try before you buy

Many of the digital tools you need to help run your organisation are available at no or low cost to try before you buy. Software-as-a-service products have freemium or limited licence tiers. Try before you buy opens up a number of possibilities from heuristic analysis through to localised trials - the approach you take to evaluation will depend on the scale, impact and whether the market offers competitive choices (there’s no point spending time and money evaluating, if you’re not likely to change your mind).

Many vendors will encourage you to believe that demonstrations are a form of trying before you buy - such as live demonstrations or pre-recorded marketing material. But these are very far from real use, often carefully designed to show the best of a product, and hide its weaknesses.

So, if it isn’t easy to try before you buy (note: it’s already a bit of a red flag if vendors won’t help you do this), you may have to get creative. In particular, find people who use these tools elsewhere, and understand their experiences. Also challenge the vendor, asking why you can’t get your hands on the product before making a commitment.

And then there are huge, sprawling IT products, such as Enterprise Resource Planning Systems (ERPs), Electronic Patient Record Management Systems (EPRs). These big vendor, big price-tag products don’t really lend themselves to trying before you buy. The vendors won’t make it easy, and may even be hostile to your attempts to do so. I still recommend you try, and part of this will be encouraging commercial professionals to go against the traditional playbook for how you procure these products.

User centred IT: An opportunity, not a threat

Applying user centred thinking to IT is an opportunity. It can enrich and augment existing practice. It can help redefine organisational relationships, allowing IT to be a partner, not an internal supplier. It can open the door to much richer multidisciplinary working - where the professional silos breakdown, and it’s more common for designer thinkers and IT thinkers to be part of the same team.

And it’s not a threat to established practice. It’s only a threat to a rigid interpretation of IT - a sense that IT is a solved problem, with no need for new perspectives.

IT is just as much an unsolved problem, requiring change and creativity, as any other area of design, data or technology.

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