What To Do When Users Don’t Want Your Product

Last week, we discussed our research process and our preliminary user segmentation as part of a student project aiding Treasury’s re-launch of USAspending.gov in May. 

Now, after meeting with more than 25 current or potential users of federal spending data, we’ve learned the value of hearing “no” and of digging into our users’ perspectives.

While feedback on what’s not useful is hard, it is valuable. In a government setting, it can save money and help to direct efforts into the right places. 

A Common Need for “More”

Our biggest conclusion is that USAspending.gov is not perceived as actionable by the many existing and potential users of the website that we interviewed.

Despite differences in industry, expertise, and responsibilities, every group we interviewed had broader needs that extend beyond USAspending.gov’s current capabilities.

So, what do users need? What is “more”?

Our interviews helped us understand what “more” entailed for each user group. We used best practices in design thinking—including the KJ method—to distill our research into five takeaways:

1.     Better design is not a solution

  • Our users’ pain points are not rooted in the design of the website.
  • For example, Chris, the VP of Federal Sales at a data informatics startup uses a business intelligence software service that incorporates federal spending data. Since Chris doesn’t access USAspending.gov directly, a website re-design isn’t impactful for him.

2.     Forward-looking data is valuable

  • Vendors to the government want clues into future contracting opportunities. Past expenditure doesn’t easily inform future revenue opportunities, and is thus immediately relevant.
  • For example, Kevin, the owner of a curtain drapery business, wants to re-drape a local Navy office, but notices that office’s drapings haven’t been touched in the last decade. For Kevin, historical data is not actionable. 

3.     Full contracting data tells a bigger story

  • In order to win contracts, users want information linking past expenditures to the relevant contract documentation. This provides insights on upcoming re-bidding opportunities.
  • For example, Tom, the Head of Government Relations at a large technology startup, wants all information at one place. He currently searches through 3-4 government databases, uses a business intelligence service, and networks with competitors in the effort to piece together a full picture of upcoming opportunities.

4.     Primary data sources are the most trustworthy

  • Because USAspending.gov aggregates other agencies’ data, many users we spoke with perceive USAspending.gov as lower quality in terms of accuracy and timeliness.
  • For example, a VP of Product at a large financial data company described the difficulty of reconciling data inconsistencies. He has dealt with cases where multi-million contracting opportunities are missed because the data “didn’t include all the 0’s.”

5.     For existing visitors, USAspending.gov is one step among many

  • Small business advisors and vendors that use USAspending.gov today view it as just one step in larger process—and not something that helps them take the next step in their process.

User Journeys

We initially thought procurement was simple.  Below is how we thought vendors to the government researched and won contracts.

Yet, through our user interviews, we learned that procurement is a winding, often circular process. We identified two user journeys:

1.     Large vendors to the government are aided by business intelligence services (part of the “re-purposers” segment), that they use to inform them through procurement process. Because these firms provide synthesized procurement information, large vendors rarely access USAspending.gov directly.

2.     For the Small Business Owner, the procurement process is a daunting multi-step process to navigate alone. Because they are more resource constrained, they turn to government resource centers like the Small Business Administration.

Next steps

All of this negative feedback was surprising to us—and we were puzzled about our next steps.

To start, we recognized the limits of USASpending.gov—an important lesson in preventing potential scope creep. We are expanding user our research into other groups, including housing experts financial institutions and startups focused on transparency.

Finally, we plan to explore ideas based on the needs we heard from procurement-oriented user groups.  Prototyping solutions in a limited time here may be difficult.  Nonetheless, we’re excited for the challenge, and look forward to sharing more in our next blog!

-Will Long, Maya Perl, Anna Ponting, Cindy Yang, Ni Xu

*All names have been changed to protect the privacy of our interviewees