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User research

User research for government services: an introduction

User research helps teams learn about users and create services that meet their needs.

Without it, you will not know what problems you’re trying to solve, what to build or if the service you create will work well for users.

Understand your users

To deliver a service that meets your users’ needs, you have to understand:

  • who your likely users are
  • what they’re trying to do
  • how they’re trying to do it now
  • how their life or work influences what they do and how
  • how they use and experience existing services

The better you understand your users, the more likely you are to design and build a service that works well for them.

Make your research inclusive

To build a good service you need to learn about all your users, including disabled users and those who need support to use your service. You must actively include people from these groups in your research throughout each development phase.

Make sure you do not exclude any users in the way you do research, such as how you plan your research, recruit participants or choose research locations.

You should also think about how to run sessions with disabled people.

Including all types of users in your research will help you to:

  • understand how people with different needs or abilities might use your service, as well as the barriers they face
  • refine your design, functionality and content based on how different kinds of users experience them
  • meet government accessibility requirements

People rely on government services to do important things. If they cannot do them, it can cause significant problems (for example, they might not receive money they are entitled to or a licence they need for their business).

In turn, these problems can increase government costs and stop policies achieving their intent.

This means your user research must:

  • include all the different kinds of people who need your service
  • focus on how your service can help them get the right outcome
  • not just ask people what they like or prefer, or aim to find out what’s most popular

The same is true of the public servants and third parties who provide or support aspects of the service. If they cannot do what they need to do effectively and efficiently, citizens and businesses will experience problems and delays.

To create an effective service, you must research your users’ end-to-end journey and all the ways they interact with your service (including phone, post and face to face, as well as digital).

Research continually

To work in an agile way, service teams must be able to quickly:

  • update their understanding of users and their needs
  • test new design ideas, content and features to see if they work well for all users
  • understand problems users are having and how they might be resolved

This means doing small batches of user research in every iteration of each development phase - starting in discovery and continuing throughout live. This is more effective and efficient than doing one or two large studies at the beginning or end of development.

Doing this means you can:

  • save time by building only the things that you know your users need
  • reduce risk by learning quickly whether the things you are building work well for users
  • respond to changing user behaviour and feedback to continuously improve the service

Make time for research

It’s essential to plan user research for your service. This makes sure that your research provides good answers to your team’s most important questions.

Throughout each development phase, user researchers should typically be:

  • working with the team at least 3 days a week
  • running user research sessions at least every 2 weeks

Build research activities and analysis sessions into the team’s regular schedule, so everyone knows when they’re happening and can make time to take part.

Make user research a team sport

User research is most effective when user researchers are embedded in service teams, and team members are actively involved in user research activities.

All team members should watch real users interacting with your service and talking about it - ideally for at least 2 hours every 6 weeks.

These ‘exposure hours’ can involve interviews, home or workplace visits, lab-based usability tests or any other research activities where people can watch and listen to real users.

Team members who observe research can then take part in analysis sessions to help agree on the findings and any resulting actions.

This will help your team:

  • understand the highs and lows that people experience when using your service
  • learn the language that people use when talking about your service
  • think and talk about users in terms of real people with real needs to develop empathy for the people they’re writing or designing for

At the same time, user researchers can work closely with designers, developers and content designers on design decisions and prototypes.

You can:

Share your findings

You should also invite your team, stakeholders and people in your organisation who deal with users to show and tells and other activities where you share what you’ve learned from user research.

Involving more people in user research helps your team make better decisions about how to improve your service by:

  • reducing the risk of bias and unchallenged assumptions
  • giving less dominant team members a voice
  • limiting the influence of individual stakeholders

Examples and case studies

To learn about user research best practice, find out:

Last update:

Guidance first published