Research is sometimes seen as something that slows us down, costs a lot and won’t tell us anything new.
Arguably, this statement is not totally unjustified. Poorly done research doesn’t move things forward. Bad research is unfocused, biased and poorly communicated. It has a myopic focus on what people and users are telling us, to the exclusion of anyone else in the system.
We’re flying the flag for what it means to do it well. Research that helps inform decisions and contributes to transformational change.
Design research is about reducing risk
When we start working with public sector organisations, they’re facing some sort of problem. It could be that they’re not delivering on outcomes, not meeting user needs or looking to reduce demand or cost. With any problem comes assumptions about the cause, which leads to a lot of assumptions about the solution.
These assumptions aren’t without foundation. After all, people grapple with these issues every day. But assumptions can often miss a real understanding of how users experience services in the real world. They leave a gap, and that gap is a risk.
Doing research to understand users is about reducing that risk. It’s about understanding the context and real experiences of people so we don’t spend money designing the wrong thing or the thing wrong. Here’s a look at a few approaches that will be helpful in keeping research-focused, unbiased and useful.
Make time to do it properly
Research is about asking the right questions, analysing the data and making sense of what you learn. It’s not academic research, but it should be done with rigour.
Without focused and salient questions, your research will lack direction and your findings will be vague and irrelevant. Do desk research, look at data and understand what’s already known. Work with people to discover what they know, what they need to know and draw out their assumptions. You don’t need to do research about everything, but make sure you address your riskiest assumptions.
Make time and headspace to do proper synthesis. If you don’t take time to understand your data, then it wasn’t worth doing.
Start with users, but that’s not all
It’s an error to think that doing user research is going to be enough. As a researcher, we become attached to the stories we hear and people we interview and can fall into the trap that telling their story will be enough to persuade people to do something differently. Sadly, it’s not.
This is only part of the picture. There are other questions that need to be answered.
- what is the appetite of stakeholders?
- what are the constraints?
- what is the capacity to deliver?
- where can we have the biggest impact?
Addressing these questions involves lots of different types of research. It’s only when these lenses come together that we can tell a compelling story for change.
Communities and place, not just user
We shouldn’t always think in terms of ‘users’. This terminology comes from designing transactional services that impact an individual.
Lots of government is much more than that, dealing with relational services like adult social care that consider beyond an individual service user to their partner, wider family and public sector professionals that work with them. All are impacted and affected by improvements, or lack thereof to services. Or thinking about the problem of knife crime requires us to not just understand what is going on for perpetrators and victims, but also wider influences — their families, youth services, schools and the wider community.
We have a responsibility to think wider than individuals and single-user perspectives. How we address big issues requires a collective response. It requires us to better understand communities and places, not just individuals.
Shared understanding is the goal
Poor communication can impede research from making a difference. The goal of design research is shared understanding. It shouldn’t sit in one person’s head.