Why are we so wary of User Research?

Understanding user needs is central to the design process. User research, i.e. getting out there and talking to people, is one of the key activities we’ve undertaken in the Discover phase.

For tech companies designing a new app or companies designing products like coffee machines, it can be easy to see where user research would fit it to help you understand what people want and where to invest to differentiate your service or product.

But user research is just as essential in public services, even if it is less familiar. Council services aren’t always used out of choice, but that doesn’t mean we should give any less importance to the user experience. As the relationship between councils and our residents changes in the future, understanding this experience will become even more important.

The idea of doing user research can rouse queries, concerns and fears in public servants, but we’ve found there’s nothing like practical experience of the process to dispel these.

It sounds like it costs a lot and takes a long time…

Even if in theory we’re onside with the idea of user research, it can sound like another complicated thing to add to an already over-long to do list. We worry about whether we have the time and resources to conduct this research effectively – won’t we need to hire specialist consultants and talk to hundreds of people?

In fact, user research doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It’s about going deep not broad – for example talking to 5 people for an hour each rather than 50 people for ten minutes each. This means that time invested in picking the right people to research with is time well spent.

There are many different methods to use, whether it’s a full on ethnographic study observing someone in their home for days or weeks at a time, or a guerrilla approach of just speaking to people on the street. Which method you choose will depend on the project you’re working on.

Ultimately, doing user research is always going to be less expensive than designing a solution to the wrong problem, or creating a service people don’t want or can’t use.

What if we only get negative feedback…?

Conducting user research isn’t the same as gathering feedback or conducting a satisfaction survey. The questions we’re asking are different so the answers we get aren’t traditional positive/negative feedback statements.

The user research we’re currently undertaking for our projects in the Lab isn’t about finding out how satisfied people are with the current service or the historical issues that might have gone on. We’re interested in the medium to long term future of the service, which means trying to find out what the appetite and opportunities for change are, what are the barriers and enablers, and what are the relationships that underpin the service.

User research is about building empathy with the user, understanding their whole life and outlook, so as long as you structure your questions well and with this in mind, you won’t come back with a long list of complaints.

Users will just want us to spend more money on the service, when we need to reduce our costs not increase them

There’s a big fear around user research and raising expectations of service users – that we ask them what they want from the service, they’ll make suggestions we can’t afford and they then expect us to deliver that.

This concern isn’t borne out in good user research. The kinds of questions you ask should shape the conversation so that the user understands what your objective is, and is clear that your conversation is part of the discovery and information gathering phase of your design project, rather than about identifying solutions.

Sometimes having someone removed from the service itself can help this – whether its external colleagues such as professional researchers or just a member of Council staff from a different team. A little distance can make it clear that the person the user is speaking to doesn’t have the power to make decisions or changes to the current service.

The other thing to bear in mind is that users don’t always see more money as the solution to their problems. Their needs might be met by spending the same money in a different way, or opening avenues to other sources of funding, or even just being left alone.

You’ve convinced me. How do I get started?

User research isn’t hard – it’s just talking to people about their experiences. You can start today with this simple 4 step process.

  1. Choose your users – spend some time finding the right people to talk to, remember you’re looking for depth not breadth
  2. Define your questions – be clear about what you want to find out and what questions are going to get you there. Keep it the discussion natural and open, and don’t ask closed or leading questions
  3. Plan how to capture research – consider using customer journey maps, diagrams and photos as well as taking lots of notes. The tools you use will depend on who you’re researching with
  4. Conduct your research – get out there!
  5. Analyse and pull out insights – go back over the conversation to see what you’ve learnt, pulling out the most interesting or surprising things and opportunities for change
  6. Present findings meaningfully – think about how you will play back your findings to colleagues and how they will help shape the next phase of your design project

You can find out lots more useful information and how-to guidance using some of the links below:

An Introduction to User Research techniques https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/user-centred-design/user-research

Ethnography https://www.gov.uk/service-manual/user-centred-design/user-research/ethnographic-research.html

Empathy mapping https://dschool.stanford.edu/wp-content/themes/dschool/method-cards/empathy-map.pdf

Contextual interviews http://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/contextual-interview.html