User Research – Making it Work in Government – Katy Arnold (ProductTank London)

BY JAMES GADSBY PEET ON MARCH 29, 2017

Katy Arnold, Head of User Research and Design at The Home Office, talks to ProductTank London about making User Research Work in Government.

The civil service has traditionally been focussed on moving paper

The Digital team at the Home Office’s remit is to help the rest of the organisation move towards a more digitally enabled way of working. It has its origins in Martha Lane Fox’s oft quoted ‘Revolution not evolution’ report which also led to the establishment of the Government Digital Service. One of the first outputs of this department was a set of Design Principles which all future government services should aim to adhere to. The first of these is Start with User Needs – which at the time was radical and has led to sustained change across the whole of the Civil Service.

“Quality products for a Digital Government”

Empowered by the GDS Design Principles, digital teams across government have been able to relook at everything the service does on the ground, to see how it can be improved. Their starting point is not finding out what users like or want but what works best for them. This is where the role of the user research team is critical, if not always understood.

The aim is to make services where the government doesn’t have to go back to ask for more information. They get everything they need because the user understands the process and what they need to send to be successful. This is the basis for the correlation between what users ‘want’ and what the government ‘needs’ from them.

Go to the places where users are

Contextual research is the bread and butter of Katy’s team. If they are in the place where the people would be using a service, then they’ll see more naturalised behaviour and be able to fully understand their context. For the Home Office this can mean being at a border crossing where people are having their passports checked on a coach. Without seeing for themselves the constraints that staff are under they would never be able to design a service that works for them.

There are no UX roles – it is the responsibility of the whole team

Within the government digital teams, there are no specific User Experience roles. There are numerous user researchers, content designers and visual designers, but the experience of a user through a service or product is the responsibility of everybody involved. From the backend performance of the server to the language used in copy, all of these things have an impact on the successful use of a service and so need to be considered together.

User Research is a team sport

Whatever type of organisation you’re working with, don’t be tempted to run big pieces of isolated research which you then hand over the wall to stakeholders or other members of your team to make happen. Get everyone involved as early as possible, working collaboratively so that they can see the actual insight you’re talking to them about later on.

A few of the Home Office team’s working rules:

  • You have to have one user researcher per project team
  • You have to speak to 5 users every sprint
  • Everyone in the team has to spend 2 hours every six weeks observing users
  • 1 person with an access need in every round of research

Accessibility first

Accessible services are a must for any government branch. The team have ensured that designing and developing for these needs are baked into their process at an early stage, so that they can more efficiently meet them later on. This also goes across ‘non-accessibility’ needs – as these users will tend to come across any generic user experience issues much quicker than the rest of your audience. Overall you save time and money and end up with a better product.

James Gadsby Peet

About JAMES GADSBY PEET

I've been in the digital industry for over 10 years and have worked across small and large charities, as well as my own freelance projects. I am now Director of Digital at the sector leading creative agency William Joseph. Having been at Cancer Research UK for the last four years, I have been able to work on high volume, high profile campaigns such as Race for Life, Dryathlon and the much-quoted #nomakeupselfie. In that time I helped drive forward the charity’s digital product and marketing capabilities to be some of the most respected and successful in the sector. I'm always excited to work with other organisations, share expertise and swap cat gifs. Give me a shout!

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