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Want great results from your service? Then put users at the heart of the design process

8 March 2019

To design services that make a real difference to people’s lives, you need to invest time and effort in understanding your users’ behaviours, needs and goals. This means identifying and recruiting the right users to participate in research during the discovery and design phases of work.

When I refer to services, I’m talking about an activity run by an organisation that supports people in a practical or emotional way. This may be face-to-face, remote, digital or most likely, a combination of all three.

1. Identifying and recruiting users

Getting the right people involved in your research is critical because the insight you gather will have a significant effect on the way the service will work.

Decide who you think your users are and identify any natural sub-groups — involve stakeholders in this process. Typically a service has different groups of people using it with differing needs.

Recruiting the right participants can be complicated. We are currently working with the V&A Museum to explore ways people might access collections digitally. As part of this project, we have needed to interview multiple user-groups plus sub groups. In this instance, we engaged a research recruiter who took our brief and sourced the right people. This was the easiest and quickest way for the V&A to recruit to a complex brief.

But what if you don’t have a big budget? Low-cost ways to recruit participants include ads on Gumtree or Google or posting messages to social media. Cash incentives always yield results!

2. When to involve users

The most successful projects I’ve worked on integrate user research throughout the design process and continue gathering insight once a service has launched. Think ‘little and often’ rather than ‘do the user research’.

The first point to involve users is during the discovery stage when you are working out the shape of the service, sometimes referred to as generative research. The purpose is to explore the nuances of the problems people are facing, what their needs are and how you can meet these.

The second phase, evaluative research, comes once you have a clearer idea of the shape the service might take. You may have concepts you want to explore and gather specific feedback on — how well do these meet user needs?

As you move closer to launch, bigger services typically integrate regular rounds of user research alongside design or development sprints.

3. The most powerful way to involve users

Above all else, the single-most powerful way of understanding users is to listen to and explore their stories first hand. Running one-on-one interviews with enough time and space to dig into experiences, behaviours and goals will provide deep insight, stimulate ideas and highlight opportunities. Encourage stakeholders to observe.

If you have time, speak to people in the environment where they use the service. This adds another layer of insight to the research. When we visited mechanics using the new MOT system for the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, we observed the workarounds they had created and we fed these into the design process. We would have missed these had we been interviewing in a lab.

Wherever you choose to engage with users, use open questioning to explore:

  • individual backgrounds and current situations
  • events that might lead people to use the service
  • how they currently use the service
  • their biggest needs and whether the service meets or fails to address these
  • behaviours and attitudes around the service and the related things they do
  • other services they use that meet similar needs and why they use them
  • personal journeys with the service: what people do before, during and after
  • how the service might work for them if it was magic (and there were no limits) — this can be illuminating!

Similarly, interviews with or shadowing frontline delivery staff will help identify pain points and opportunities. What are the changes you could make that would support staff in their roles and enhance the end user experience?

Once you have a firm idea of how the service might work, you should recruit different participants and run further rounds of interviews.

Other useful ways to involve users in the design of a service include:

  • co-creation sessions where service users and stakeholders work in collaboration to solve problems
  • sourcing statistical data about how people are using a service — this might include surveys or analytics when there is a digital component to a service

When we helped Scope design a new employment service for disabled people, we combined insight from research interviews, co-creation sessions and surveys to help us identify how the service could best meet user needs. For example, a large number of people with disabilities who responded to a survey indicated they weren’t confident with job seeking. We explored this issue further in the co-creation sessions and interviews which led to the creation of a CV and application review service that users could access from home.

This approach meant Scope was confident in the value of the service before launching it in 2018. Since then, 135 people have gone on to find work using the service.

Harry Wilkinson, head of growth at Scope, told us: “The focus on our customers during the design process made our services better. Understanding what our customers want and how they want to use the service helped us make better decisions, use our resources more effectively and build better relationships with those people we work with.”

Looking ahead

Working with users to determine what a service might do and how it might work is exciting. It is the best way to create something that is useful, valuable and ultimately successful. Involving users throughout the design process shouldn’t be intimidating; it just takes a little time, patience and a lot of listening!

If you are thinking of involving users in the design of a service, start with an open mindset and remember you don’t know how much you just don’t know, because you are not the user.

Useful resources service manual advice around research methods and planning user research:

Nielsen Norman Group guide to design thinking:

Nielsen Norman Group design research cheat sheet:

Ideo guide to co-creation:

Image: Negative Space on Pexels

Sam Menter

director and co-founder, Mace and Menter

Sam Menter is the co-founder of Mace & Menter where he leads projects for third and public sector clients. He has a background in research and design and has led the experience design and audience insight on BIMA and BAFTA award-winning projects. He started his career at an embryonic in 1999 and went on to develop his experience at the BBC before co-founding Mace & Menter in 2013.