This is an attempt to articulate what makes being a user researcher in the public sector – and specifically UK central government – so interesting and rewarding. These are some of the things that make it exciting to go to work.
Typically, people do not choose to use a government service; they have to. As such, they are users, not customers: generally speaking they cannot take their custom elsewhere and pay taxes, apply for a passport, or check their state pension through a different organisation. There is no alternative, there is no choice, and government therefore has a duty to provide services that work for everyone. Needless to say that user research for government comes with responsibility.
Bugs, design flaws, non-sensical or inaccessible processes are inconvenient and frustrating for users in any context. However, the consequences of such issues are often far graver in the context of government. While an error during online shopping may result in a delayed birthday gift, a similar error while applying for benefits can result in debt, visits to a food bank, or even homelessness. In other words, the consequences can heavily affect someone’s ability to live their life.
Making things that work for everyone does not mean doing research with everyone. It does mean you need to understand as much as possible about the different problems different people may face. In organisations like GDS there is a strong focus on the far ends of the bell curve of citizens – those of us who may not be ‘average’ when it comes to, for example, literacy, access needs, age, digital confidence, etc.
The idea behind this is that if you can make a service work well for, for example, people with low literacy or low digital confidence you are making the service easier to use for everyone.
It also means that you have to understand the big picture. While many people may be able to use digital services, alternatives need to exist for those who cannot (e.g. those who are instead able to call, write, or do things in person).
Government problems are often incredibly complex. Many factors contribute to this, ranging from the difficulties that come with making things work for people in a (very) wide range of circumstances, the size of government itself, contracts and legislation, culture, and legacy IT.
It is key that the problems are addressed in an appropriate way, as people depend on government services working. The approach taken by GDS (‘Revolution Not Evolution’, letter from Martha Lane Fox to Minister Francis Maude) in 2010 was to create a culture across government that is focussed on starting with user research and continuously iterating.
The good news is also that you are never alone in trying to address problems: government is big and there are many knowledgeable people across all departments from whom you can learn. Through cross-government mailing lists, meetups, and Slack channels information about ongoing projects and previous research findings is frequently shared.
All in all there are many big problems still to solve and ambitious goals to reach for. Take for example the ‘once-only principle’, which would ensure citizens will only ever have to submit a specific piece of information to government once. Government will then have to figure out internally how to get that information to the relevant departments and services when needed. Problems that make your brain hurt, in a good way.