I first spoke about this topic at FutureGov’s #DesignForGov event in Manchester earlier this year. You can view the slides for that talk.

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.

Researchers should spend 70% of their time communicating, helping and persuading people to understand and act on research and 30% actually doing.

Leisa Reichelt

Getting stakeholders to make decisions means getting people with different perspectives across an organisation to come to a shared understanding about the real problems. From day one, we should be thinking about who needs to hear about research. How can we involve others and bring them along with us? How are we sharing and what messaging is going to be most effective?

Rarely is a research report going to be the answer. Thinking about creative and compelling ways to bring people on the journey will help create buy-in across the organisation.

What are you leaving behind for people?

Doing research can be the start of a design intervention, helping to sow the seeds of change. All design research should start by asking ‘what are we leaving behind?’

Beyond building knowledge, understanding and buy-in, we can connect with new people and organisations. Research activities can be set up in a way that brings together people to form new relationships and networks and allows citizens and communities to actively engage in the research. People who could potentially help us solve problems.

Are you looking for an opportunity to do research that makes a difference? We’re hiring, take a look at our open opportunities.

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