By designing services inclusively, we build a future that works for everyone and leaves no-one behind. But it’s not something we can achieve without input from the people using the services, which is why we bring residents voices to the heart of our research. Researching and designing with specific groups in mind ensures that everyone’s needs and aspirations shape the change (and the future) we make.

Essex County Council is continually looking to improve the lives of all of its citizens by creating a more inclusive and meaningful place to live. There are currently 27,000 adults with learning difficulty and autism (LD&A) in Essex, of which only 4,100 are known to the Adult Social Care team and just 16% are in some form of paid employment.

Recognising that talking directly to citizens is the most effective way to understand the challenges they face, Essex invited us to work closely with an integrated commissioning team and residents with LD&A to learn what the council could do to provide better services and more meaningful outcomes for its residents.

When researching with residents to better understand their needs, we use a toolkit of techniques that encourage people to share their stories. We recognised during this work with Essex, specifically creating better experiences for the LD&A community, that we needed to adapt our approach to better suit citizens’ needs, engaging with people who see, hear and understand the world differently.

Experts by experience

One of the best parts of my job as a design researcher is meeting new people and learning from their experiences. Our first research tool is to always seek out those who know the field we’re exploring really well. We spent time with people who worked with or cared for adults with LD&A, learning from them how best to approach our research. Observing how carers support people, we learned how to phrase sentences and which topics to avoid.

This knowledge from staff and carers, teamed with learning from residents directly, helped us adapt our usual methods, making sure residents felt safe and secure. By taking time to understand how to communicate, we built empathy, making it easier to relate with others who experience the world in a similar or different way.

Within FutureGov, we’ve been asking and discussing whether we’re always best placed to conduct research with specific groups. There’s a real opportunity for design researchers to take more of a coaching role, encouraging citizens with similar experiences to conduct their own research. After all, they’re the experts by experience.

Talk less, listen more

When arranging and starting any research session, we explain who we are, who FutureGov is and what we’re working on. This makes it really clear to the people we’re learning from what we’re hoping to achieve and that improving the services they use is at the heart of our job.

Yet, our approach with Essex needed to be a little different. Staff working across Essex, who knew their residents really well, arranged the research sessions and explained the project to them. This was a great getting the right people in the room. Staff and residents already had a shared understanding, meaning people trusted us by extension and understood that we weren’t there to judge. We were there to learn. It made it easier to entice people quickly and put attention on the most important voices in the room.

Show, don’t tell

During research sessions, we encourage people to guide discussions themselves, which often uncovers the common challenges people face. Sometimes, it can be hard for people to voice their experiences or share insight.

In Essex, we noticed that visual aids were an effective way to prompt residents to lead discussions, using illustrated cards showing different services, members of staff and activities. Visual prompts kept the conversation on the resident’s own experiences and personal stories. This communication helped us identify their concerns with local services.

Templates used during testing to visualise people’s ideas

We used this style of communication during later phases of the project, bringing people’s ideas to life by drawing what they described as they spoke. This made our note-taking collaborative and transparent. Using visual methods helped people digest information and memorably manage their thinking.

Be ready for anything

Research sessions are notoriously varied and this was no different in Essex. Each session was entirely different from the last. Often, we’d be in a new setting with a different combination of residents. It was important for us to be vigilant when adjusting to new locations, sometimes having to abandon plans. If we felt people were uncomfortable, we’d re-energise the room by discussing something more engaging, but perhaps off-topic. Having an informal chat on a subject of interest from gardening to the latest superhero movie put everyone in a better headspace and better able to reflect on experiences like annual health checks.

We built relationships with individuals, joining them during daily routines, travelling with them to health centres, community groups and even a farm visit which employs people with LD&A. Taking time to relate to people in a friendly manner helped us put specific experiences we needed to know into the wider context of peoples’ lives, which we’ll now do in future sessions.

An inclusive Essex

This project and our findings have helped Essex Council continue their work on improving life in the county for all of their citizens.

Through this process, we took the time to understand how specific groups of people communicate to better improve their everyday lives. Learning directly from a wider group of residents with varied and specific needs offered us a chance to reflect on the go-to research toolkit we use. This has put us in a better position to support peer-to-peer research going forward and improve our practice to be more inclusive for all.

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