User Research: three ways to do more with less

With User Research getting more expensive and taking longer, we suggest some practical ways to acquire insight in an efficient way
User Research: three ways to do more with less
Jun 5th 2019

Our recent article outlined some current problems with how User research is used and commissioned within government. Today, we’re following up with some practical advice on how to make your User Research more affordable, effective and useful.

1. Collect and re-use User Research

One of the biggest causes of waste in the user research industry is the failure to re-use previous insights. We recommend that government departments (in future, perhaps the whole Civil Service) follow Hackney Council’s lead in building a User Research Library to hold a collection of insights from previous work, including personas and perhaps transcripts.

Other researchers could draw on these resources to accelerate their own research phase. They might be interested in research on the same user-group that they are going to look into. They might also value the chance to review research on different groups, but where the mechanism, behaviour or context is similar.

To be useful, a repository of User Research needs to be more than a folder on a shared drive where people paste a host of outputs in a disorganised way. Content should be meaningfully tagged to help researchers find what they need, and there should be an effective free text search function. A department could use a Sharepoint site supported by some strong internal comms as a Minimum Viable Product before funding and constructing a fully featured library.

2. Tightly scope your research brief

We have noticed that Discovery exercises are often commissioned with vague research briefs, such as “look into this user group”. This seems to be a habit picked up from the commercial sector, especially from entrepreneurs interested in innovation. For a start-up, broad research briefs can be a great way to define a business around a new, unmet need. For instance, insight into young people’s eating out habits in combination with the decline of cash payments showed an unmet need to split bills easily for card payments: this gave rise to apps like Splitwise and Venmo.

But this is not usually the remit of a Civil Servant, acting within a more limited scope and constrained both by financials and ministerial appetite. They’re likely to have specific policy outcomes to achieve. This means the problems or needs to be researched are likely to be reasonably specific.

That’s why thinking harder about the specific questions to be resolved may save significant time and energy. Find some further advice on defining problems on our YouTube channel.

3. Triangulate with cheaper research methods

One way that government could usefully take the private sector’s lead is in making more of cheaper, digital research methods. From online communities to free social listening tools, there is a wealth of new ways to gain insight from your desktop or phone screen.

Online Market Research communities are controlled environments where a moderator plants questions and stimuli and encourages online engagement. They may take the form of a public forum or social network. Use them to get to insight more quickly and cheaply than through face-to-face qualitative research. They are especially helpful when you have a tightly-scoped research question.

Online communities can be really beneficial when anonymity makes it easier to elicit responses, or if you are interested in testing responses to visual stimuli and videos. When working with a younger audience of ‘digital natives’, an online community is often the natural way to engage.

They are also effective for looking into a small topic, but with a longitudinal lens. For example, for research on a specific element of maternity services, you could dip into the same community each month over an extended time period. That way you can gain a series of insights from mothers at different stages of their pregnancies.

Social listening tools, such as Brand24, are another helpful option. They are useful when you’re looking to support or reject a hypothesis quickly. They can provide you with insight from a range of social media platforms, alongside information on positivity of sentiment, concurrent themes, and basic demographics. Be aware that the insight from these tools can be quite self-selective. Some people only tweet about your service if they have strong feelings on it, particularly if those feelings are negative. That said, for quick insights aiming to identify obvious flaws or common complaints, they are worth a try.


Of course, every research case and project is different. You may need to commission unique and specific User Research to understand and define exactly what needs to be done next. But by breaking down the research brief and combining approaches – including cheaper, accessible, collective and digital resources and tools – you can minimise the expensive, bespoke and personal element of research and make sure it’s highly targeted to deliver the exact insights you need.

What are your top hacks for doing more with less when it comes to User Research?

Talk to us if you have opinions to discuss or an immediate public sector research challenge to deliver.

Authors: Katie Burns and Antonio Weiss