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User Research: What is it, and why do we do it?

15th August 2021

User Research focusses on humans and our interaction with tools, technology and services, the context of these interactions, and the associated goals. It has its roots in the scientific discipline of Ergonomics, or Human Factors.  

Our ambition ‘To create a world leading digital planning system in Scotland based on the needs of users and makes best use of data and technology’ places user research at the heart of our approach.

It creates a clear understanding of who the wide range of users of the service are, how they use it, their current experiences of it, both good and bad, and the opportunities for improvement.

Presenting insights from our user research at a stakeholder event

We employ user research to understand user behaviours, needs and motivations through a broad range of techniques and methodologies;

  • Qualitative - What are the problems and how to fix them?
  • Quantitative - How many or how much?
  • Attitudinal - What do people say?
  • Behavioural - What do people do, which can often be different from what they say they do?
  • Context of use – Is the research based in real-life, a lab, or context free?

We conduct user research through an iterative, user-centred design process. Here we look first to understand and define the issues experienced from the perspectives of the users of the system, collaboratively explore potential solutions in the form of prototypes, then evaluate them against the identified needs.

Feedback we capture is used to improve the design before returning to evaluate the improvements made, repeating the cycle. We will be exploring our user-centred design approach, the process and benefits in more detail in a future article.

Technology, how people use it and what they expect from it changes all the time. We are all familiar with sites such as Amazon, eBay, and Google – these big brands and many others have a commitment to user research on a continuous basis. They set a standard for user experience that continually pushes the expectations users have of all other sites, technologies and services they interact with and use.

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In a work context, there is generally far less freedom with the tools, technology and systems we use. Those that are awkward to use, frustrating, and inefficient not only impact on productivity, but can have a big impact on job satisfaction.

In the context of delivering public services, such issues can be the difference between someone quickly and easily accessing and using a needed public service, or not. These issues then become barriers, alongside accessibility, to inclusive service delivery.

A poor user experience can often be traced back to user-centred design and/or user research either lacking or being poorly implemented during development. Indeed, the lack of involvement of users and a poor understanding of user requirements are historically two of the biggest factors in IT development project failure.

Digital Planning aims to use the findings from user research to help ensure the planning system of the future is effective, efficient, easy to use, easy to learn, useful, accessible and yes, even pleasurable to engage with.

We have summarised the User Research we have conducted so far in the programme. There are three User Research reports covering:

  • Development of the main themes
  • Creation and evaluation of prototypes illustrating the art of the possible
  • Exploration of the innovation and transformation within Spatial Planning

We will continue to conduct user research throughout programme delivery, where it will help ensure the future planning system we deliver is fit for purpose and meets the needs of all its users.