Conducting User Research in Government?

Editor’s note: GovLoop interviewed current and former government employees about limiting beliefs they’ve seen throughout their careers in public service. Here’s an excerpt from that conversation in the words of one interviewee. 

Cyd Harrell, independent civic design consultant

Cyd Harrell is an independent civic design consultant and author of “A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide.” Her background is rooted in the user research discipline, and she has also worked in product management. Much of her work focuses on bringing both design and product management practice to people in government who make those kinds of decisions.

Limiting belief: We are a government organization and don’t think user research is something we can do.

What’s at stake: You really miss a connection with your constituents around the service that you’re building or providing, and that can lead to a lot of things, including employee discouragement, if people don’t see how improvements that they’re making affect the actual public, or difficulty in management making decisions because they don’t have good information.

What’s missing from the conversation: I really believe that everybody who makes design decisions — and you could say the same for product decisions — deserves to have design practice and design communities. There are a lot of public servants making what are actually design decisions: how to present something to the public, how to design a digital product or a digital service. Even people who write communications or signage for use for the public are making design decisions. They have great instincts and a lot of smarts, but may not have had exposure to design practice or design community.

  • Acknowledge the discomfort: That’s a real thing. You may be told information about how your product or service works that is unpleasant, and I think one of the important things to recognize is that if you are in a career government position, you can get in trouble for that. That’s a career risk. And so taking that on requires supportive management.
  • Shift your mindset: It requires a shift sometimes in mindset toward being excited to find out that information and using it to get better. Sometimes there’s a political appointee in charge who doesn’t understand or who is very rigorous about the way that they evaluate people against goals. The idea of getting bad feedback from the public, which is a pretty universal result of any user research study, is legitimately risky.

Reframe the conversation: What I try to do is make a safe way for them to experience the process and show them the values through doing that. Invite them to do a dry run of your protocol with an alumnus of the organization. In convincing people that it’s worth doing research, get really clear on those research questions and show how your research plan leads to getting that valuable answer to those questions.

Talking points to cut through red tape

Communicate your work. Sometimes demonstration sessions are not the first step. Be transparent about your protocols, what questions you’re going to ask and how you’ll do it, how people can immediately opt out if they don’t want to participate in research, how the information is presented to participants, and more.

If you get permission to run a small study, or a big study, share with your broader team at the end of every day what you did. You might say, “Here are some of the interesting things that we found out, and we’ll be enlightening this more later.”

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s new guide, “Agency of the Future: Common Misconceptions Holding You Back and How to Break Free.” Download the full guide here.

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