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What is user-centred design without user research?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Case study, PublicPolicyDesign

A photo of a civil servant discussing public services.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) Policy Lab has been wrestling with an interesting tension of joining a policy project that couldn’t secure permission to do user research. Our team were left with the question: what is user-centred design (UCD) without user research?

Our challenge was to utilise service design to its fullest potential so that we could still add value and help progress policy thinking.

Practical limitations to user research

To conduct user research externally sometimes requires a public announcement by the UK government which shows its intent to look into a particular policy. Although unable to engage publicly for our project, there was strong appetite from policy stakeholders to think about policy options and potential risks and consequences.

It is fair to say without the grounding of user research, our small team of Service Designers, User Researchers and Product Managers, felt stuck and unsure of a way forward that could still add value to our stakeholders and help progress this policy.

After a few attempts to advocate for user research but unable to get permission owing to the sensitivity of the work, HMRC Policy Lab had to take a pragmatic approach.

Using service design to forge a new path

HMRC Policy Lab agreed to create a space where we could recreate the imagination of our policy stakeholders. We largely became facilitators – trying to make sense of the myriad of options that our stakeholders were contemplating, to challenge where necessary, to guide and to make explicit the assumptions held when designing policy options.

While the policy design phase was ongoing, we urged stakeholders to keep pushing for user research – because without it, we are designing blind.

Working with policy stakeholders and various business areas, HMRC Policy Lab created a strawman policy option. A strawman is an assumptive-led, problem solving technique that allowed us to outline a potential solution. We mapped the strawman in a user journey style template. It was imperfect but thought provoking and got reams of external stakeholders questioning what a new policy could look like for HMRC, taxpayers and indeed themselves.

Utilising the service design toolbox

Policy stakeholders created proto-personas of potential taxpayers for the policy – and these were used to question how the policy option could cause pain points across the steps. Although the proto-personas were diverse, the pain points boiled down to ten problem areas, which were reframed into problem statements.

HMRC Policy Lab then ran a workshop where we took these problem statements and found solutions using Crazy 8s as a framework for ideation. Ideas were then prioritised and went through a process of Make it, Break it, Fix it to develop ideas into more refined concepts.

Three ideas were prioritised to prototype, using basic materials like pens, cards, post its and templates. In as little as an hour, we had created ‘rough around the edges’ prototypes. However, the process of creating something allowed the group to think, constructively challenge and iterate on the spot.

Progressing policy development

Going through the process of breaking down the policy option to creating prototypes helped us to iterate the strawman and identify a set of questions for the policy team to continue exploring.

Although we were able to engage with international tax authorities and one other government department, we had exhausted opportunities for different routes to research. This had left the policy team feeling a loss of momentum and energy. So when it came to HMRC Policy Lab facilitating the workshops, we wanted to create safe spaces where we could recharge, refocus and help the policy team to see that we can still make progress – even in small steps.

On reflection, the biggest success was after months of advocating for user research, the policy team really bought into the value of user-centred design and how it can help to inform policymaking, rather than something to do during digital delivery.

Tips for designing policy

As a team we have taken stock of our involvement in the project and here are some of our reflections:

  • Appreciate your limitations – some projects can be incredibly difficult, and you can spend a long time trying to pin down the problem to solve, but this project required a different kind of resilience. It needed patience, perseverance but also an honest reflection of what can and cannot be done.
  • Take a pragmatic approach amid the chaos – there were times when as a team we struggled between taking a purist design journey – think of the original Double Diamond and the linearity it depicts - and doing what was best for the project. We had to lean on the side of pragmatism and think carefully about what we could do within the project constraints we had.
  • Check it adds value - There is more we could have done but we had to question if it would add value. Although we took a pragmatic approach, there was a balance to strike between doing the right thing or doing something because we can.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Bani posted on

    Great article! Could another way also be to utilise internal people to do research with? Given the sensitivity and given public servants are also users


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