User Research in Government – Leeds Digital Festival 2019

May 10, 2019 11:22 am

User Research in Government – Leeds Digital Festival 2019

For many in the private sector, agile development and A/B testing allows projects to be flexible and respond to what works with users. This Lean approach means that user researchers are on their toes all through a project and the results may pivot the direction of development several times so what they deliver is quite different from what they initially set out for.

In contrast, public sector teams know where they are heading so a user researcher’s role is to ensure that what is delivered is usable for the public. To learn about how user research is different in government, I went along to a talk by Euan Gillespie as part of Leeds Digital Festival.

Euan Gillespie is currently Head of User Research at DWP Digital in Leeds but has previously worked in the private sector so is eminently placed to talk about the differences in user research between private and public sectors. He talked openly about some of the challenges and successes they have made in such a large and complex department that serves millions of people in the UK.

Transformational projects

The first difference that Euan raised was that most projects in the public sector are transformational – that is, they transform a paper system to a digital one. This is in contrast to the private sector where, more often than not, projects are developing innovative new services or products and are free to design processes and infrastructure from the ground up.

Euan explained that transformational projects are more challenging because digital design teams need to fully understand and continue to support the legacy paper systems, while trying to develop a digital solution that works for everyone.

Getting it right before release

In a pure play Lean UX project, nearly everything from concepts to functionality can be tested in live. This brings with it the risk that what goes live may not meet user needs, and may create more work as the team needs to continue to support the existing infrastructure. 

For these reasons, Government departments focus on doing research in the project stages before live: discovery, alpha and beta.  By the time a service is released into live, the team knows it meets user needs and it works.

Qualitative research

DWP research focuses on qualitative methods, usually face to face with people. That’s not to say that all the knowledge that user researchers gather is qualitative. The teams work in conjunction with business analysts (BAs), social researchers and analytics teams to build a bigger picture of needs.

Now that’s something we know about at SimpleUsability. It’s true that business often calls for quantitative research – because it’s numbers that make an impact and persuade stakeholders to take action. As behavioural researchers, we know that numbers do not tell the whole story. We have to get underneath those numbers and find out why people behave as they do in order to know what changes to make.

Unmemorable bathrooms

No one chooses to use public sector systems. It’s just something you have to do as part of life. Like going to the toilet.

Yes, Euan talked about toilets, or rather a great article that talked about the usability of toilets and hand dryers.

Think about it. If you’re out and about and go to the toilet, you’re not looking for a memorable experience. In fact, if it’s memorable it’s probably for the wrong reason – a dirty environment, broken door locks or no toilet paper. Or maybe you’re a UX junkie who’s looking at the UX of the various systems involved like the paper dispenser and the taps! You want a toilet that just works.

And you want a government system that just works so you don’t have to think about renewing your driving licence or submitting something else so that’s what government teams aim for.

User research is built into projects

Some UX researchers working in the private sector might feel they spend more of their time arguing for budget or justifying why research is important but government researchers know they have the organisation behind them. The Service Manual demonstrates the mature UX approach taken by government departments to ensure their services are fit for user needs.

Euan told us candidly that for some teams, the guidelines can be taken too far, putting them at risk of doing research for the sake of it. With DWP his approach has been to focus on getting quality research done rather than doing it for the sake of it.

He also explained that having the Service Manual behind you is one thing, but user researchers still need to spend time getting to know their team and being open about their practices to ensure everyone is engaged and understands the value and impact on their work.


Events like these allow us, as researchers, to learn about practices and approaches in our community. We have a lot of government user researchers in Leeds and a lot of user researchers working in the private sector. Thanks to Leeds Digital Festival and DWP User Research for bringing us together to share and learn from each other, here’s to many more.