Why it can be hard to recruit users for research

Designing and building technology that people truly need and can actually use, means doing research with the people who you intend to use it. Preferably early, and preferably regularly. If you can’t find these people, or give up trying to find them, you’ll probably build something rubbish.

If you’re designing a food delivery app, finding potential users for research is straight forward. You have a large audience to choose from and it’s a gentle, palatable topic. However in large complex organisations like central government, there are some  critical pieces of technology that we need to design where it’s hard to find users for research. Over the years, i’ve noticed a couple of common reasons why.

Transformation fatigue: sorry but we’re bored of this now

Digital Transformation is the process of using technology to create new, or modify existing processes. It’s has been happening in government for about 10 years now, so that’s plenty of time for previous research and design teams to get it wrong and wear down the patience of the people inside the organisation that they’re trying to help.

Some areas or departments are lucky and welcome help in improving things, whereas others find the process tedious and frustrating; they were promised some new, shiny, revolutionary technology many years ago and it still hasn’t arrived. Their job is still as difficult and tedious as it was when they met their first User Researcher in 2016.

I’ve often found the patience is the lowest in areas where front line or operational staff have time critical tasks to complete. For example, departments that have case workers who process things like our passport applications, do manual eligibility checks for things relating to payments or have frontline staff working on check points and crossings. It’s feared that taking these people out of their jobs to help with research can have serious implications. For example, people in need not receiving money, or dangerous people ending up on our streets.

It’s no surprise that line managers in these areas are reluctant to give away the precious time of their teams, especially when the news headlines aren’t that difficult to imagine.

Fear of participation: sorry but speaking to you will affect my chances

There are many good reasons why people do not want to speak to large organisations, especially government departments. People see them as one great big homogeneous mass that symbolises something. It’s impossible for people outside of the organisation to see how the agenda of a User Researcher can be very different to the MPs they read about in the news.

A few not-so-hypothetical examples that I’ve seen are;

  • New teachers being concerned that being critical of a policy or department will impact their career.
  • Small and new suppliers to government thinking that giving negative feedback on a procurement process will prevent them from winning new work
  • People seeking British citizenship or passports being fearful that speaking negatively about the process will directly affect the outcome of their application

What’s interesting about the users in the examples above, is they are often the people who need the most support from the organisation, so should be the prime candidates for research. Hearing their voices forces the design team to get out of their own heads, try harder, and build something better. The outcome of this makes the end product or service better for all that use it.

No easy solution

I like problems like these – they’re really difficult to solve and critical to the success of a project. The common doctrine of “show the value of research and design” simply doesn’t work here; the managers of front line staff are totally fed up with “research”, and the stakeholders or budget holders simply can’t prioritise the needs of such a small audience segment.

From my experience, recruiting these people for research is normally achieved through a combination of persistence, patience and diplomacy. This is hard to prepare teams for, as these traits are not easy to learn. Instead, they’re usually learned by being immersed in the precise environment where these traits are needed most.