Designing public services: The importance of defining user groups

Michael Brown

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The Nightingale team has worked with a lot of different public sector services and one common theme is that they often have to be used by everyone. Health services, visas, planning applications all need to be accessible to a wide range of people across the country and sometimes around the world. But, how do you go about understanding your users if you're building something that is for anyone and everyone?  

Identifying user needs, developing personas, even planning a recruitment strategy is not straightforward when you have such a large potential user base. In the UK we are lucky to have the Government Digital Services (GDS) design principles which have been developed to guide exactly these sorts of projects, but this blog will go a step further to talk about some specific practical steps you can take to plan and deliver valuable research when working with very broad services.

What do you mean by ‘everyone’?

When you are designing a service with a broad reach it’s never the case that it should/could be accessed by absolutely everybody.  An important early step when working on these services is to think about who needs to access the service and who simply won’t be able to.

For example when working on a smartphone based service to help patients quickly check-in to doctors surgerys’ we quickly identified some key characteristics that differentiated our users from the general population:

  • They are adults or older teenagers.
  • They either had a health concern or are checking in on behalf of someone who has one.
  • They are unlikely to have an emergency or urgent health concern (people with these issues should have been directed to an alternative healthcare setting).
  • They have access to a smartphone (an alternative must be available to those who don’t).
  • They are currently resident in the UK.

The importance of considering user groups

While your service might be used by a wide range of people, that doesn’t mean that everyone is going to use it in the same way or need the same things from it.  By identifying distinct user groups helps you identify more manageable and targeted types of users and will help you ensure your research covers a broad range of users based on the practical differences between them.

When we worked with the UK visas and immigrations service on improving the visa application process we identified a range of different user groups with very different needs and pain points in the existing service, such as those applying directly, those applying via an intermediary and those applying from outside the UK. Identifying and qualifying these groups in turn allowed us to focus on research while ensuring we allowed for the wide variety of applicants.

Sampling bias is a major issue

When you can recruit almost anyone for your research, how you go about reaching out to them can easily skew the type of people you recruit and therefore bias your findings. Having clearly defined user groups can help with this, as you can map participants against the groups and quickly identify any that are underrepresented.

For example when working with the Education and Skills Funding Agency to improve the application process for apprentices we found that recruiting for research participants on existing government websites tended to attract a lot of young adults who had been directed there by guidance counsellors and very few other applicants or current apprentices. In response to this we reached out to apprenticeship training providers and trade bodies who helped us recruit a much wider and more representative set of participants.

General advice

Of course all the normal rules of good design still hold true, you should still be: 

  • Understanding your users before trying to design for them
  • Identifying and challenging assumptions
  • Testing your designs and iterating on them

But how you implement these rules can be quite different as you need to rationalise how you spend your time and resources rather than trying to understand all the nuances and possible interactions of every single possible user.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, so please do reach out to us if you are working on a wide reaching service and want help ensuring you're getting the most out of your research and design.

Draw on our experience of delivering valuable user research for services with a broad reach