By Colin Marrs

20 Jul 2017

Understanding users is vital to any change project – but it’s not a simple task. Colin Marrs reports on a round table exploring innovative methods of user research

Four years ago, the government launched its Technology Code of Practice, setting out broad principles for the development of civil service technology architecture. One of the stated aims was to ensure that digital transformation projects are based on users’ needs. Yet, earlier this year, the National Audit Office reported that take-up of the Verify identification system “has been impeded by problems experienced by users”. 

Not picking up the Slack: Whitehall instant messaging clampdown reveals lack of trust in civil servants
Interview: GDS leader Kevin Cunnington on Whitehall 'self-help groups', spend controls and cold water swimming

At a recent round table organised in association with global digital transformation specialist Cognizant, Civil Service World gathered experts to discuss how government can improve its understanding of how cultural, behavioural and emotional factors influence user experience and system design. 

“Government agencies, just like big multinational companies, are very good at creating use cases and workflows and requirements in approaching the design of digital products and services from a very rational viewpoint,” said Roger Gagnon, managing director at Idea Couture – a Cognizant Digital Business. “And that’s a fantastic capability to have in a big company. But what we sometimes miss is a fundamental understanding of the jobs that the end customer actually needs to do on the other side of that laptop or that phone.”

Last year, a government office project began to stumble, even though huge efforts had been made to discover user needs through focus groups with key stakeholders. Despite their best efforts, those running the project found challenges in bringing staff along with them on the change journey. Idea Couture was brought in to apply “ethnographic” methods – namely a suite of approaches, including speaking to people and observing them, in order to build up a wider picture of how they live their lives. “It allows you to understand some of the more tacit, unarticulated needs that exist within people’s lives, which can be very powerful when you’re designing any kind of digital change programme,” explained Dr Eitan Buchalter, senior resident anthropologist at Idea Couture.

Civil servants gathered around the table shared their own experiences of progress towards meeting user needs. Lily Lewis, programme manager of CDIO at HM Revenue and Customs, described a recent project where HMRC employees were given new smartphones to test. “Encouraging them to be experimental and watching how they used their work applications enabled us to create a product that helped change the way staff were working,” she said.

Caren Fullerton, chief digital officer of the Welsh Government, said that ethnographic techniques were used during a recent project to significantly increase flexible working arrangements. “We got all the teams to sit down and just have conversations about how they work together, how they would support a flexible working culture in terms of changing some of the aspects of the way they work, and delegated an awful lot of responsibility to the frontline teams,” she said. The project achieved a 12% shift in flexible working over eight months, she added.

But what is the most useful information to gather on users? The civil service faces different challenges to the private sector in that it must “cater for 100% of users 100% of the time,” said Louise Downe, head of service design at the Government Digital Service. “We don’t have an option to be able to optimise one audience or another,” she said.

Large scale data can be useful when approaching the challenge of catering for a mass user base, according to Downe. “If you look at the work the Office for National Statistics did around who is actually using the internet,” she said, “we are finding loads of people in the older generation using tablets, which informs our mobile first policy. It’s also important to know that many rural populations are actually often better equipped with higher broadband speeds than in urban areas.”

Likewise, talking to staff in more depth enables organisations to get a grip on how they might use internal systems. Conclusions can often be better drawn from wider questions than more direct ones about job functions. “If you ask them ‘what job are you trying to do?’, they’ll never be able to tell you and that’s why it’s so important to experience their lives and to understand what these unarticulated needs might be,” Buchalter said.

This approach often throws up interesting design outcomes, Gagnon added. “In a previous project, we worked with higher education institutions to digitise their application procedure,” he said. “We managed to get it down to a two-minute process. And what the students told us is that they didn’t trust it – it was too quick. They didn’t believe that all of that work could be done in two minutes, so we ended up having to slow it down.”

This route to discovering user needs can also be useful in disabusing digital project managers of any prejudices or assumptions they bring to the process. “We have inspectors who are often ex-head teachers of a certain age, so you might not expect them to be too interested in the technological approach,” said Neil Greenwood, director of strategy and digital at Ofsted. “But when we got out there and talked to them, we discovered that wasn’t true. They had been talking to each other for years about how ridiculous the process [of completing school inspection reports using carbon paper] was.”

Among those around the table, Phil Pavitt was in an ideal position to compare the differences in approach of the public and private sectors. Currently global chief information officer at optician Specsavers, he previously served in a similar role at HMRC. “When I was in the private sector, they wanted it to be like the public sector,” he said. “When I was in government, they wanted it to be like the private sector. If they actually talked to each other, they’d have a great day.”

“Watching how staff used their work applications enabled us to create a product that helped change the way they were working.”
Lily Lewis, programme manager of CDIO, HMRC

Because it does not face commercial pressure, Whitehall does not have the same incentive to radically rethink its processes, Pavitt said. “I often wish there was an Amazon Government, because, in our industry, Amazon sharpens the mind every second. When I was at HMRC I had three funding envelopes given to me and I just followed each of them for the four years I was there. In the private sector, because our competitors are so fast, we can’t follow that process."

Traditionally, this slowness has been fuelled by government’s siloed structure, but there is agreement that the arrival of the Government Digital Service has improved knowledge-sharing. The new kid on the block might have ruffled a few feathers along the way, but “collaboration is really hard to do, unless someone comes and does it to you,” Pavitt said. GDS’s Downe added that informal meetings between research and content design professionals across government are now taking place on a monthly basis.

The civil service still has much to do to ensure it is drawing the right conclusions about how staff and the public are using its systems. But, despite the lack of commercial competition, the situation is improving. The good news, according to Buchalter, is that interventions resulting from a better understanding of human experiences are not expensive. “Once you know what you have, then you’re in a much better place to change it,” he said. “In essence, it’s an evidence-based approach to change management.”

Read the most recent articles written by Colin Marrs - 'No child should go unseen again': Children's commissioner Anne Longfield

Share this page