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How MQ put audience-centred design at heart of new research service launch

17 January 2020

Towards the end of 2019 MQ launched a major new service, Participate, to connect mental health researchers with people interested in participating in studies.

It was just a year in the making, and  almost entirely funded by donors, with very little upfront investment from MQ. By working gradually, and iteratively, in close collaboration with our tech partner Torchbox, we’ve been able to build the case for investment as we go – raising a substantial amount of money for MQ along the way.

But it’s not all been straight forward – this was the first significant digital product we’d developed at MQ. And it represented a new way of tackling our wider strategic aims, beyond funding research. So how did we do it, and what have we learnt from the process?

Defining the problem

One in four people experience mental illness each year, yet our understanding of what causes mental health conditions, or the best path to treat them is woefully lacking. As a mental health research charity, MQ’s belief is that through research we can transform what it means to experience mental illness.

But robust research relies on participation – without the views and involvement of those affected we won’t be able to achieve the progress needed.

Yet mental health researchers often struggle to recruit participants. Just 2% of those in mental health services are involved in NHS funded research, compared to almost 20% of cancer patients. This damning statistic made us start to consider how MQ could help researchers with the recruitment challenges they face, whilst easily allowing the public and those affected to get involved in mental health research.

We’d defined our problem: the challenge of recruitment.

The process

First, before embarking on a project to try and solve the problem we did two things – we spoke to researchers to validate this is a problem they want solved, and we made sure that we had the right resources and expertise to try and solve it .

Then we took an iterative approach to developing the Participate platform, which was necessary because we didn’t have any budget, but it’s also helped us to ease stakeholders into this new way of thinking, gaining their buy-in and support as we go.

We began by creating a “super-minimal” minimum viable product (or MVP) on MQ’s existing site – a simple web page  listing studies looking for participants, with links or researcher contact details to find out more. The process was horribly clunky for researchers and participants to use, and involved lots of manual processing by staff. But it helped quickly, and cheaply, validate our idea – to make sure this was something researchers and the public actually wanted.

The results from this first test were hugely promising. Within months – and mainly from word of mouth promotion – we had over 100 studies listed on the site. The response from our supporters was also hugely positive – emails sharing the new webpage achieved the highest open and click rates we have seen (60% & 20% respectively) and the page even surpassed our homepage for most visited content on our site at one point.

Having realised the potential of the project, we brought on a tech partner Torchbox to help bring Participate to life. During this time we used agile working practices – such as design and development sprints – to expand our design thinking and then build the product iteratively. This approach meant we could continually test ideas with our users (researchers and participants) to make sure what we were building worked for them. It also allowed us to gradually build the case for investment and demonstrate impact to our stakeholders internally. At the end of each ‘sprint’ we had tangible outputs and user feedback that we could share with donors and stakeholders to communicate the idea behind Participate.

This has been a new way of working for MQ, and at times took us outside our comfort zone, but approaching it in a staged way has made stakeholder management much easier. And by showing how appealing the product has been to donors, we’ve been able to demonstrate its financial as well as strategic potential.

The results

The Participate platform has received overwhelming positive feedback. We’ve exceeded all expectations in terms of engagement from potential participants. In the first three weeks since launch we had almost 30,000 visits to the site and over 2,000 people applied to take part in a study.

Researcher feedback has been equally positive, one from the University of Reading said:

“Listing our research project on MQ’s Participate platform has given a huge boost to our recruitment. We received well over 100 applications in less than a week! It’s a really invaluable platform.”


Here’s a few of our learnings for other smaller organisations embarking on digital product development:

  1. Be creative with your process and funding – building gradually came with risks (eg not getting enough funding to complete it!) but as long as you make sure you’re getting something valuable out of each stage then it’s a good way to build the case if you don’t have enough budget upfront. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to funding too – explore sources you might not have considered before. This project has opened up avenues of funding that we had struggled to access before – so don’t just default to your normal sources.
  2. Spend time with stakeholders – if like MQ, this approach is new to your organisation, then make sure you have time set aside for bringing stakeholders along with you. Write board papers. Present to your stakeholders. Bore staff with constant team meeting updates. Ultimately, remember that to get your message across takes time and repetition – so keep communicating your product’s value to users and to the business.
  3. Have the confidence to go for it! Start small, build your case as you go, and have the confidence to take the plunge. We’re a small team at MQ, and so hopefully this shows that it can be done, even with limited person-power.

The future

The launch of Participate is just the beginning of our journey.

We’re now in a second stage of development supported by the Wellcome Trust, focusing on how we can improve diversity within mental health research, and exploring how the site might better meet the needs of research institutions. This stage also includes scoping the income-generating potential of Participate which is hugely exciting.

But ultimately, we are keeping our vision for Participate front and centre of all the decisions we make. Through the platform we want to connect mental health researchers with the wider public to improve the mental health of everyone. And Participate is the first step to achieving that vision.

But there are so many other ways that we can build those connections, so we hope that this will be the start of a broader conversation around how we can improve the involvement of those affected by mental health conditions in the research designed to help them.

Kathryn also shared her insights about this project at our last Charity Digital Conference, her slides from the day are available here.

Kathryn Excell

head of digital, MQ: Transforming Mental Health

Kathryn is head of digital at MQ: Transforming Mental Health. Prior to this, Kathryn was a communications officer at single parent charity Gingerbread. She’s worked in communications and marketing for the last five years helping colleagues and beneficiaries to tell their stories. In her spare time she sits on the board of Global Justice Now and runs along London’s canals as much as possible.