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Increase the impact of discovery research

Author: Kat Thackray
Illustration: Helen Couper

Most discovery work is commissioned with intent to create change by creating or improving a service. Researchers, designers and technologists form a discovery team and build a detailed understanding of people’s needs and the problems that need solving.

But decisions around the specifics of that change and any funding required typically involve a wider group of policymakers, governance committees and budget holders.

At best this can mean potentially valuable research insight that doesn’t have the impact as it could because this wider group hasn’t been exposed to it. At worst, it can mean decisions are made that contradict findings, resulting in services that don’t work for users and wasted public money.

So the discovery team has a dual responsibility - to uncover useful insight AND to widely communicate the insight so that everyone involved can make the best decisions for the service. 

Here are four things we’ve learnt that will help decision-makers engage with insight and empathise with users.

1. Spend time understanding stakeholders’ goals and concerns before you talk to users.

Why is this important?

Finding out who all the project’s decision-makers are, spending time understanding their goals and needs, and feeding these into the user research plan means the groundwork is laid for having deeper, more honest conversations later down the line. 

People are people, whether they’re at work or not, and their decisions and actions are driven by their hopes, fears, ambitions and frustrations. Each organisation and team has a different level of psychological safety. Some teams feel comfortable communicating at the level of “I feel deeply worried about X”, but more often we hear “I think very strongly that we should do Y”, without having access to the motivations behind that. 

Spending time with those people also creates a space to reinforce the purpose of doing research: we are here to help you. How can we help? What do you need to know? Stakeholders who have had these early conversations with the research team are much less likely to feel that the research is being “done to” them, and are more open to working through difficult findings - for example, to find the solution which meets users’ needs and all the information governance requirements.

What we’ve learnt to consider:

  • Schedule time for stakeholder interviews with everyone who’ll be making decisions about the project, not just the immediate project team. Spend time building trust and rapport before expecting to understand what’s really going on for them. Offer a degree of anonymity. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about what they really think about the research: do they need to know the answers? Does it feel like it’s getting in the way of delivering quickly?
  • Ask whether there are ideas they already have that they’d like to get some feedback on. Take those ideas into your user research sessions later - set aside five or ten minutes at the end, to avoid influencing the rest of the conversation. This can highlight areas to investigate further or avoid early on.
  • If someone is insisting on a decision that goes against all the evidence the team has gathered, it might be because there’s further context to explore. Asking questions to understand that context can be a really powerful way of working towards an option that balances the needs of everyone - stakeholders and users alike.


2. Go to where your participants are.

Why is this important?

Visiting someone in their home means being immediately immersed in their world. We learn a huge amount about people from their surroundings: the home gym being used as a laundry airer, the neatly ordered books, the keepsakes and trinkets on the wall. 

People we meet in their homes are whole people in a way that faces against a pre-set video-call background can’t ever be. Video can reduce levels of empathy and the narratives we can uncover. The more fully the research team understand their participants, the better they are able to communicate their experience.

When we’re researching the experience of people providing a service, we find that observation gives much richer insight into who’s involved and how it all fits together. Individual interviews are incredibly useful, but when we’ve spent some time in the corner observing and asking questions we have a much fuller picture of the problems that need solving.

What we’ve learnt to consider:

  • Encourage individual project team members to observe the research in person. The more empathy the project team have for people using the service, the more motivated they will be to improve experiences.
  • Take photographs. Faces = empathy. Contexts = understanding. Is the medicine drawer so cluttered it’s impossible to find anything? Are there angrily-worded notices in capital letters on the door to the reception area? Images contain huge amounts of information.
  • Tell stories, especially when sharing observations of sites or interactions with multiple people. Give the people names, set the scene. Narrative gives people who weren’t there a way into the experience, and offers a vessel for more memorable, engaging information than a report would.
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3. Use video

Why is this important?

Observing research sessions in person is a fantastic way to build understanding and empathy, but the reality of a lot of people’s jobs is that it’s just not possible to spare half a day to travel to a research interview. Even an hour to observe a remote session is often impossible to prioritise over other commitments. 

Taking a video camera - or even a phone to record with - offers a way to show the project team what the experience of the service is like. There’s only so much that even the best research report can convey; by contrast, a video is an almost invisible window into the lives and stories of participants. There’s less getting in the way.

Edited video highlights - even just chunks from video the team already has, like remote interview recordings - are a quick way to build empathy for a project’s users across an organisation.

What we’ve learnt to consider:

  • Edit carefully! Bear in mind how much time people are likely to have to watch a video. Sitting down to watch a half-hour video is a big commitment, but five minutes can be squeezed in between emails. 
  • Think about the purpose of the video before you start filming. Where are you hoping for it to be shown? What sort of impact would you like it to have, and at what levels of the organisation? A quickly edited iPhone video is a great way to show the immediate team the most interesting things you’ve found, but if you’re summing up the whole project in a video to share with the board, the film needs to be higher quality.


4. Ask research participants to visualise their experiences, then stick those visualisations on a project wall.

Why is this important?

Giving participants the option of making a drawing or collage about their experience of the service is a powerful way into a conversation about what’s important. These drawings can also be an impactful way of communicating what’s important with people who weren’t involved in the interviews. Having a hand-made collage with the words “WHY AREN’T THEY LISTENING???” in red ink stuck to the wall can really keep the team focused on the problems they need to solve.

What we’ve learnt to consider:

  • Not everyone is comfortable with drawing. We prefer to frame this as an option, rather than a requirement, and we offer several alternatives: collage, words, a photograph.
  • Consider the brief carefully. We’ve had the best results when we’ve been quite prescriptive. (“Create an image showing what it’s been like trying to get your child the help they need” vs “Please draw your experience of the service so far”)

A discovery is only as good as the decisions it facilitates and any subsequent changes it creates. The more empathy for service users discovery can unlock, the more impact the research will have and the better the decision-making will be.

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