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User research fundamentals: a 5-day course that will change the way you work

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Stickers with 'users first' written on them
A few years ago I attended the Government Digital Service's  2-day introduction to user research with John Waterworth, the Head of User Research.

I was so impressed by what I saw and heard that I wanted to know more.

Anyway, it took me a while, due to high demand, but this September, I finally got to go on the 5-day user research fundamentals course (if you're a civil servant, take a look on Civil Service Learning).

The course has been designed with GDS and was delivered by David Travis. David is a chartered psychologist specialising in user experience. He also runs his own company, Userfocus, and has written a couple of books on usability and user experience.

What user research actually is

Put simply, it’s about understanding users’ motivations and needs. If you don’t understand your user, how can you possibly provide them with the right content or services?

Just to be clear, it’s not about what users ‘want’.

Henry Ford is alleged to have once said that if he’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said faster horses. But, if you ask the right questions, you may find out what it is they need.

The first rule of finding out what people want is: Don’t ask people what they want.

The second rule of finding out what people want is: Don’t ask people what they want.

Don’t ask people what they want - discover why they want things. Find out:

  • what problem are they trying to solve?
  • how do they currently do it?
  • what works well and what are the pain points?
  • what workarounds do they use?
  • what other solutions have they tried, or thought about trying?

You do this by observing users and interviewing them. The Sherlock Holmes approach to user research.

What the course covered

The course, which was held over 5 days, was split in two. The first 2 days covered:

  • the reasons for focusing on user needs
  • understanding the fundamentals of field research
  • the kinds of data you should collect during a field visit
  • identifying the user groups for your service
  • creating a lightweight persona to describe the behaviours, needs and goals of the specific user type you will visit first

The final 3 days covered:

  • learning how to write a test plan to engage the design team in the research
  • developing test tasks that are relevant to a particular service
  • turning key tasks into usability testing scenarios
  • different methods of usability testing, such as lab-based, pop-up, remote moderated and remote unmoderated
  • experiencing what’s involved in moderating usability tests, making observations and analysing the data

If that all sounds a bit dry, I promise you – it wasn’t. People being people, things didn’t always go according to plan. But that’s the interesting thing about user research – you have to expect the unexpected.

Hands-on usability testing

The most interesting part of the course for me was when we looked at usability testing in days 3 and 4.

Basically, usability testing involves giving volunteers certain tasks to perform to see how easy a service is to use.

We split into small groups and each group chose a well-known online service for their research. We wrote different scenarios and asked members of the other groups to try to carry out those tasks while we observed and took notes.

I won’t name the websites – for obvious reasons – but you’re likely to have heard of and used them.

What was most revealing was that, while we may use some websites on a regular basis to book holidays, flights, and train tickets, for example – and may even at times be frustrated in our efforts – we, being focussed on our own needs, never normally look at it through someone else’s eyes.

When you do, you suddenly realise the value of user research and are able to see fairly quickly where some well-known websites are failing to meet all of their users’ needs.

What I enjoyed about it

This was an excellent course. David, the facilitator, certainly knew his stuff. He’s got over 20 years’ experience, and it showed.

Also, the group were a fantastic bunch. They had varying degrees of experience – some had only just started down the user research path – and I was the only content designer. Everyone was enthusiastic and wanted to learn.

The course was also highly interactive. We were given lots of group tasks to do and it was very educational – as well as great fun!

Maybe David was preaching to the converted. After all, we were all there voluntarily and all worked in user research or a related area. But the beauty of it was – it all seemed so obvious! Why weren’t we doing it before?

It’s hard to argue with the premise that you should get to know as much as you can about your users and then supply them with the content and services they need.

Why user research matters to content design

It matters because GOV.UK is the shopfront for Government. It’s most people’s first point of contact. If the stall’s not laid out correctly, then people will shop elsewhere – and that usually means an inferior product.

You can only create the right content if you understand what it is your users need. Trying to second-guess them, or worse, not even bothering to try and discover what they need, will mean that you risk producing substandard content and services.

If you can’t give users what they need, they will either:

  • try to find it elsewhere – such as via unofficial websites that have been cobbled together and may be offering the wrong advice
  • use other channels to communicate with us - such as customer service centre, which could potentially leave them even more frustrated if the person at the other end of the phone can’t help

How I'll use what I learnt

As a content designer, it’s important for me to always be learning how to do things better. It’s about professional pride and wanting to provide a great service for our users.

One way I can do that is to better understand them and their needs through user research.

Helping people keep their vehicle safe to drive is one of our top priorities.

At the moment we have a PDF guide about maintaining the roadworthiness of commercial vehicles. It's an important document that forms the basis for public inquiries and investigations. It also sets the standard for good practice. But it's quite long and isn't always easy to read.

I'm working on creating a more task-focused guide (called 'Keeping your commercial vehicles safe to drive') in HTML. I'm hoping to use some of what I learnt on the course to carry out research into what information users need to keep their vehicles safe to drive to make this updated guide easier to find and use.

By starting with users' needs, we can make sure content is designed to meet them, which helps everyone stay safe on Britain's roads.

Keep up to date with our work by signing up for email alerts or following DVSA digital on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by Dominic posted on

    Very interesting article! Thanks for this, Grant. It confirms a lot of things I've been reading and thinking about recently.

    • Replies to Dominic>

      Comment by Grant posted on

      Thanks, Dominic.