User Experience Insights from Open Data Users

At Socrata we love data, not just the data that lives in our products but also the data about our products and the data about the people who use our products. If you're interested in this data and our user experience research efforts at Socrata, read on. 

Study Details
In early October, 2015, we partnered with six of our customers to run an intercept study on their sites, also commonly referred to as a Voice of the Customer study. Our goals in conducting this research were to understand who's using open data, for what purposes, are they successful, and how can we improve their experiences. This was a two part survey, with 372 participants who completed part one and 189 participants completed parts one and two. The participating customer sites and their breakdowns were:
Let's dig into the results... 
But before we do, here's a quick note about the validity of user experience research data: In order to conduct valid and representative UX research efforts we apply standardized qualitative research methods, we interpret values as approximations, and we triangulate our insights across various methods and sources. More details here.


Our users are primarily citizens and professionals
  • Citizens (about 40%): Citizens can be grouped into two sub-categories, which we are calling citizens in need and curious citizens. Citizens in need make up the larger portion. These people are looking for specific resources or information such as subsidized housing, lost pets, yard waste pick up schedules, salaries. Curious citizens have less specific questions and are often looking for general info or crime data.
  • Professionals (about 35%): Professionals are a mix of internal government users, casual professionals (such as contractors and inspectors), business decision makers (such as small business owners), data analysts, educators, professional researchers, and journalists. These professionals come to us with a wide variety of needs from finding specific info (e.g. a permit status), exploring info (e.g. what businesses are located along a city transit line) and rich analyses (e.g. material to support a blog).
  • Students (about 10%): Students make up a large chunk of our users. In fact, they make up a larger segment than advocates (which is less than 10%) or developers (about 5%). Many professionals tell us that they learned about open data from their academic days. As such, we think of students as our future fans. 
The following table show a more granular breakdown of open data users.


Users are typically finding, exploring, analyzing, or upholding the data
There are many ways to segment a user population. One way is by user roles (see above), another is by what they're trying to achieve. So, what are users trying to do? 
  • Finders (about 30%): Users who are looking for an answer to a question. A row, or a few rows of data is often all they need to be successful. For example, “I been looking for two years for an place that me an my kids can call home,” and “[I’m] Hoping to find my lost dog.”
  • Explorers (about 40%): Users who are curious or have more open ended questions. They are comparing, contrasting, and forming opinions. For example, "[I want] to learn more about how to help my business grow," and "Crime stats in my hood."
  • Analyzers (about 25%): Users who are going beyond exploration to do some number crunching. A subset of these folks will download the data. For example, "[I'm conducting an] International comparison (I Am a policy advisor to a local government organisation in the Netherlands)."
  • Upholders (about 5%): Users who support or extend the open data network either by developing, project managing, or publishing the data. For example, "[I'm] Identifying possible data sets to be used for a data science project benefiting the city of Chicago."
Notes: The segments describing user's roles (citizens, professionals, etc.) are sprinkled throughout these segments. Some users will move from one segment to another depending on the situation or their journey. 
Our users content needs are more diverse than expected
The users are using a larger variety of data than we anticipated! Overall, there were about 40 different categories of data that people were working with. There’s a bit of a field of dreams mentality at this point because each site had a uniquely popular data category (note that this is representative of user needs rather than actual usage). Examples of these categories include housing, lost pets, and permits.
Excluding these uniquely popular data categories, the most commonly popular categories among all users (after general use and unspecified categories) were map data, crime data, and business data.


Educators are the most successful and happiest users
  • Citizens in need are the least successful. Our current user experiences make it challenging to answer a simple question. Another theory is that citizens may have the least data literacy relative to the other segments.
  • Educators, journalists and internal gov users are the most successful. One hypothesis is that the less specific the question/needs (I.e. Looking for any insights rather than specific answers), the more likely they’ll be successful.
  • Advocates and business decision makers are least likely to recommend our services. Sounds like they’re unhappy, perhaps because they’ve got a lot on the line. Also, they may have more specific questions/needs that are harder to answer. 
  • Professional data analysts and educators are most likely to recommend our services. Sounds like they’re happy, perhaps because they love data.

In summary...
When I write UX research conclusions, I like to frame them in terms of what surprised us most. For us (at Socrata), the top surprises were:
  • Most citizens are not exploring, they are looking for specific answers. Many of these citizens are dependent on the open data to quickly find important resources or information, and that information can change their lives. 
  • Student and educators are key users. They represent our future fans and current fans, respectively.
  • The professionals are a much larger and more diverse group than we anticipated. The data and information they're looking for truly helps our economies thrive. Small business owners are using this information to grow their businesses, data analysts are translating data into business intelligence, and journalists are looking up insights to share broadly. 
  • Our most vocal users of open data are not always the most common users.
We are eager to create solutions to better meet these segment's particular usage needs. 
Tell us what surprised you! Send us your questions. And collaborate with us in future research. We look forward to learning more from a broader range of customers and a broader range of end users. You can reach us at
-Tira Schwartz, Principal UX Researcher