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Agile discovery research at the ONS – a case study

By Maria Santos

Digital Marketing Manager

Published:

People for Research have been working with the Office for National Statistics (ONS) since the end of 2017, recruiting users to take part in an exciting user research project with the goal to improve the access, findability and reusability of government statistics available across the GSS – the Government Statistical Service. This research project – currently in Alpha stage – is looking to understand how users use and interact with the data accessible on the GSS platform.

The findings of this initial research stage pinpoint the intentions, methods and problems identified by users of data and potential users of the GSS platform as part of their jobs, for example. These findings shared by participants working in the fields of economy, policy-making, business or charity, among others, will later define how the service will be improved and the next steps within the process.

Being able to interview the actual users of government-published data is essential for the ONS, as it provides real feedback and allows the researchers to identify the problems faced by users when trying to use platforms like GSS, as well as collect their suggestions to improve the service.

Discovery research: listening and observing

As part of the Alpha stage, the research team at the ONS have been focusing on telephone interviews, face-to-face interviews and observation sessions, as well as group workshops/focus groups. “All of these methods have allowed us to build knowledge about what users currently do and the issues they face,” says John Lewis, User Researcher at the Office for National Statistics, currently heading this research project and working closely with People for Research during the user sourcing stage.

The interviews and the group sessions have been essential to discuss why the participants need the data, which actions elicit the action of searching and using it, plus the goals and pains associated with finding and using government information.

As part of a recent Bristol-based meetup around the topic of user research and user-centred design, veteran web craftswoman Ajara I. Pfannenschmidt talked about the importance of ‘Creating space through silence – The art of listening in user research’ and listed six important things to do during a discovery research session:

• Forget your assumptions and ideas;
• Validate the contribution of the participant at the beginning;
• Listen from your “inner silence” space;
• Make the participants feel heard. Keep eye contact throughout;
• Be a present observer;
• Be aware of your body language. Be straight, open chest, both feet on the ground.

According to Leisa Reichelt, member of the GDS user research team, the discovery stage is meant to “discover people, not projects”. “If you want to deliver a service that really meets user needs, you need to understand what people are trying to do, and how they’re trying to do it, when they encounter your service. This means that research during discovery might seem ‘bigger’ than it needs to be for your specific project.”

Although the Alpha stage is exclusively about discovery research and mapping out the user journey, the research team at the ONS is confident about next steps: “the evidence and insights that we’ve got so far have allowed us to build our knowledge and start developing wireframes for usability testing”.

The importance of talking to the right users

Over the last seven years we have specialised in working on research about digital tools and services, in this time the spectrum of project types has grown, and the level of complexity increased. Although the brief provided by the ONS to guide us during this user recruitment project was straightforward, we were asked to recruit 12 participants that used government-published data as part of their work routine; this constituted a niche requirement according to our experience of previously recruiting this user group.

To accomplish our goal, we used a mix of methods and tools that included:

1. Emailing a portion of our database in London and Bristol

We selected the demographics that were likely to include the professionals that used data published by the government as part of their roles. This meant searching for people of working age, employed and working in specific industries such as business, law, healthcare or finance.

As part of our recruitment process, we tasked our dedicated Marketing team to plan how to approach these people via email, making sure that our content was clear enough without giving too much away about the project so not to lead the participants during the pre-screening stage.

The potentially suitable candidates then went though a thorough screening process on the phone with our recruitment team to not only confirm the veracity of their answers, but also their ability to communicate and talk about the topic of the research.

2. Free find

After analysing the first wave of pre-screened candidates coming from our database, our recruitment team proceeded to research potential new participants on LinkedIn, getting in touch with a number of hand-picked potential candidates that, once again, went through the screening process.

Free find is particularly useful when a first recruitment effort – in this case, our database – does not return the exact number of suitable participants or there is a need for more diversity when it comes to the industries the participants work in, for example.

Interestingly, in this case we were able to source most of the London participants from the database, but had to employ free find methods to find the right participants in Bristol. This could be explained by a number of factors, one of them being the fact that, for example, our London database includes more professionals working in relevant industries for this specific project.

According to John Lewis, the quality of the users that take part in discovery research is very important. “We need to make sure that we’re speaking to the right people – people that use government data, so that we can incorporate their real-life experiences and feedback into our decision making. If we couldn’t meet with the right participants, we wouldn’t have any evidence to base our work on.”

“PFR have been a great resource for my work, as it’s allowed me to ‘recruit’ participants in a short timeframe while I’m still building my own pool of users. From my first contact with PFR you’ve been really good at understanding what I’m looking for and why and have made it clear what you’ll be doing and have kept me up to date throughout the whole process. The participants themselves have met the brief that we discussed and I’m looking forward to the next lot of participants that I’ll be speaking to.”

First conclusions

Following the government guidelines on how to run an Alpha stage, now that the inception (composing a team and setting out goals) phase is closed and the iteration phase is ongoing (discovery research, wireframing, testing with users, etc.), the ONS research team expects to be able to analyse the first conclusions soon.

“You’ve got a bunch of preconceived ideas about what your project should be,” Leisa says, and “this is exactly why we do user research: to find out what people are doing now to solve their problem, understand what needs they have, and to understand how we can best help meet those needs. Then it’s time to work out what the project should be.”

According to John, so far the ONS research team hasn’t come across “any feedback that’s taken us by surprise, and most of the feedback we’ve had aligned with our assumptions, so we’ve been lucky in that respect.” However, this is still very early stages for the research team at the Office for National Statistics, and we hope to catch up with them at a later stage in the process to find out what the future holds for the Government Statistical Service.

For now, here are some bullet points if you’re planning to run your own agile discovery research project:

1. Set out goals and plan your research.
2. Go into the project free of bias, with the intent of listening to your users and allowing them to challenge your assumptions.
3. Make sure you find the right users to talk to, whether you recruit them yourself or work with a third-party recruitment agency like People for Research. This includes making sure you have a good mix of types of users, so the feedback is as diverse as possible.
4. Some researchers find it useful to record and organise their findings in a visual way, so consider creating a visual map of the users’ journey.
5. Talk to other user researchers and find out what works for them and what techniques they employ during agile research. Sharing is caring!

At the end of this discovery research stage, the team will have stories shared by participants that describe and fit in the overall user journey, useful metrics and awareness of the users’ needs (including accessibility requirements) that will allow them to plan for a potential Beta phase.

In the words of Leisa Reichelt, “doing user research to understand your users will help make sure you design the right thing, before you start worrying about designing it the right way.”

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If you would like to find out more about our in-house participant recruitment service for user testing or market research get in touch on 0117 921 0008 or info@peopleforresearch.co.uk.

About the author: Maria Santos is the Digital Marketing Manager at People for Research. You can find her on the People for Research’s Facebook or Twitter accounts, regularly engaging with potential participants, market research experts and the UX community.

About People for Research: We recruit participants for UX and usability testing and market research. We work with award winning UX agencies across the UK and partner with a number of end clients who are leading the way with in-house user experience and insight.

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