How might we improve the voting experience?

Originally published on the GDS User Research Blog

Once every 5 years, when UK general elections come round, we’re given the opportunity to research the experience of voting. Although voting is not something we’re really working on, the recent general elections offered an opportunity impossible for the GDS user research team to resist.

We conducted a small study

With some help from colleagues in the Home Office, we conducted a small study in the days before, during and after the general election. Our goal was to see if there were opportunities to make the voting experience better.

Our data comes from:

  • 30 phone interviews with young people who were mostly voting for the first time. We spoke to them the day after the election.
  • 44 participants from a varied demographic participated in a diary study using dScout.
  • We triangulated the data from these 2 studies with data that our social media team found using Brandwatch.

Recruitment constraints

We were recruiting during Purdah (the pre-election period) and without a budget, both of which were significant constraints. As a result, the participants in our study skew towards being more engaged in the democratic process than we’d expect to be typical. Still, we think many of the findings are widely applicable, although you’d probably unearth a lot more opportunities and insights if you did the same study with less democratically engaged participants.

Here’s what we found out.

Voting is emotional

Young people told us that casting their first vote felt like a rite of passage to adulthood. They felt compelled to vote because of the history of sacrifices made to be able to vote, and how hard-won democracy can be.

It is exciting that I could vote – afterwards I felt like an adult and I can get a mortgage next. – Ben

Many people talked about the act of voting as feeling historic, and an important moment for them and their participation in society.

Some people interpreted the paper and stubby pencils as signifying the ‘tradition’ of voting, but many others felt that the experience of voting was quite antiquated.

When leaving the polling station it is hard to believe that we are in 2015… I think next time I will wear a Victorian costume to fit the experience. – EV

The experience of voting can be a bit of a let down

I expected it to be exciting but there wasn’t much of an atmosphere – maybe because I went early. – Hatti

The general elections are a moment in time where people are more engaged in their community and in the democratic process than they might normally be. This may offer an opportunity.

People are looking for voting to be more of an experience, but the experience often turns out to be a bit of a non-event.

Many people are surprised at how little time it takes to vote. On the one hand, they feel this should be communicated more widely so that more people know that voting is not time consuming and difficult. On the other hand, they sometimes feel ‘rushed through’ and the importance of the act of voting is lost.

Several people felt confused and intimidated by people wearing rosettes and asking for their polling number. People taking exit polls don’t identify themselves, or what they’re doing, leading some people to mistake them as polling officials. For some people, this made the voting experience more stressful.

[I’m] At the school to vote. People outside asking for my polling card number. Don’t know why. They are wearing political party rosettes. Does this mean my details will be used by the party? I wouldn’t want that. How are you feeling now? Anxious. – DS/BK

Making sure you’re registered to vote is not always simple

For people who do want to vote, making sure you’re registered to vote is not always simple. Most people we spoke to were registered to vote, but they told us about friends and family who were not aware that they needed to register until it was too late.

The need to provide your National Insurance number when registering to vote is more difficult for young people – they don’t receive a physical card with their number on it, so it’s more difficult to provide that information.

Some people indicated that they weren’t sure whether they were successfully registered to vote, or where they were registered. This meant telephone calls to local authorities, which often went unanswered as the election drew closer, and people re-registering just to be sure.

I registered online but I didn’t feel confident that it had been done as I didn’t get a confirmation email, so I called the local council a few days before to confirm. – Elizabeth

Moving house or having two addresses (eg students) was particularly problematic. This meant that some people delayed registering to vote until the last moment because they weren’t sure where they were going to be at election time. Or, sometimes they’d discover that they were enrolled a long distance from their current address.

I registered on the last day. I wasn’t sure where I was going to be [on election day]. I moved placement during my degree and forgot where I had registered. – Scott

Polling cards are important but often fail

People use polling cards to confirm they are registered to vote, to know when and where to vote, and to find the polling station. Polling cards were a point of failure for many people, especially as they seemed to arrive at different times or not at all.

The polling card never arrived, so I’m not sure if I’m registered to vote. – Shad

They were often misplaced because they’d arrived very early, or caused stress because they arrived very late or not at all. Also, the polling station map on the cards seemed to be unreliable.

The map on the polling cards is to the wrong place – people in the queue are furious, they’ve been wandering about lost. One man asks them to put a poster up to direct people. They say they can’t – they only take notes and tell the council for next time. Bit awkward. – DS/RA

Working out who to vote for can be difficult

Most people we spoke to took the decision as to who they would vote for quite seriously. Most of them struggled to find information that was useful to help them make a decision. Many people told us that they used the online tools that anonymised the policies in the manifestos and then told them who to vote for. They found these tools useful.

People weren’t happy to discover new candidates in the polling booth at the moment of voting.

When I got to the sanctum of the booth I was amused to see that there were ten, TEN, candidates. So where were their leaflets? How am I supposed to consider voting for them if the first time I hear about them is in the bleeding voting booth? I mean, FFS! – DS/SW

Young people told us that they talked with each other openly about who they were going to vote for and who they did vote for – they’re aware of this being more of a taboo for their parent’s generation, but feel that talking openly was an important way to help them decide who to vote for.

People thought government could do a better job of helping them know when, where and how to vote

Young people in particular thought there was a lot that government could be doing to help more people feel more confident and knowledgeable about the process of voting. A lot of people felt they learned about voting in the polling station when it should have been taught at school.

They don’t teach you that at school. I know how to draw plant cells but not how to vote. – Yiannis

It would be nice to explain the details about voting – to say, this is your first election, when to register, you don’t need to bring ID etc. – Michael

People also thought that the government should be more proactive about messaging people to remind them that the election was coming up and when and where they should plan to vote. Less consumption of TV and newspaper content seemed to mean that it’s more possible for young people to not notice there is an election coming up.

What would have been useful is an email a week before the election saying ‘you are registered, remember to vote, this is your polling station’. – Sophie

Voting for two elections at once can be confusing

A number of people were registered to vote in locations where both the general and local elections were held at the same time. For two main reasons, this often caused confusion.

First: the focus on the general election often meant that people were not aware that the local election was being held and had not considered who to vote for.

Went with my husband to vote. Surprised there were council elections as we haven’t heard anything about them. No idea who the candidates are. – DS/MX

Second: there are different methods of voting for each type of election. This caused some confusion and people felt they had to be careful about voting to ensure their vote was valid – some weren’t sure that they had in fact voted successfully.

All done. Always find the mixing of local and national elections tricky. Two crosses on one, definitely one cross on the other. – DS/JS

The’localness’ of voting can be frustrating

Voting is very local – you can only vote in one location where you live and you vote for local members who represent that area. Many people found this difficult to understand and frustrating.

The requirement to attend a single location to vote is a point of failure for people who intend to vote but aren’t able to be in the correct place on the day – they often don’t know this sufficiently in advance to arrange for alternative ways of voting or don’t know that other methods are available. To some people, this seemed particularly unnecessary and archaic and is often an unexpected discovery for people who are voting in the UK for the first time.

I thought I could vote anywhere, my friend explained to me I had to vote where I was registered. I missed the deadline to change address. It is irritating that can’t go to any polling station, that it is linked geographically. – Shad

People were often very frustrated that the local representation limited their ability to vote for the party they wished to represent. Most people seemed to think about voting for a party rather than for a particular Member of Parliament – a mental model that’s perpetuated in the way the media talks about the election – then they arrive at the polling booth to discover they can’t vote for their party of choice. This is a frustrating and disenfranchising experience.

I live in Buckinghamshire so I was only offered Conservative, Green and UKIP. It was annoying not to have more choice. Instead of voting on my ballot I just wrote ‘none of the above’ because I was very annoyed at the lack of choice I had. – Joanna

Finally, people who lived in safe seats felt that their votes were much less valuable than those who lived in closely-contested seats.

Part of the reason [I didn’t vote] was that the Tory seat where I live isn’t going to change, so my vote felt a bit pointless anyway. – Liam

Plenty of opportunities for the future

So, it turns out there are lots of opportunities to make the voting experience better, which will in turn result in more people voting in a more informed way.

You can download the deck for more details. We hope you find it useful.

Improving internal services and tools to help make the end users experience better

Originally published on the  GDS User Research Blog

User researchers from across government met yesterday to share stories and experiences about user research they’ve done in improving the tools we use within government to deliver services.

Researchers from the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, Land Registry and the Government Digital Service shared case studies. We heard about tools used by civil servants to check applicant eligibility, process applications, update circumstances, buy digital services in government, and tools used by civil servants throughout their career.

Despite the diversity of the case studies, some very similar themes emerged. In this post, I’ll share some of those themes.

Internal user research brings its own set of challenges

Several speakers talked about the challenges that recruiting internal user research participants can bring.

Recruiting is slower and more time consuming

It’s easy to assume that recruiting for internal research will be easy and fast because, I’m surrounded by my participants, right?

In general, it was agreed that recruiting for internal research is slower and more time consuming than recruiting for external user research. That is, unless you’re studying just one team and can behave more like an anthropologist.

GDS user researcher, Angela Collins-Rees:

With a recruitment agency we can specify when and where we want to meet/hold our sessions and for how long. We set the parameters and the agency works to find participants who can fit in with that. With internal users, it’s a bit more of a bargaining game. We can’t be as rigid. We’re also not incentivising internal participants. We’re relying on their goodwill and interest to give up their time and participate in our research.

In general, with internal research you have to do all the recruitment yourself and it demands constant effort and time. Potential participants often find it difficult to make time in their work day for you to visit, to get permission from their managers to participate, or to come to the user research lab.

It’s important to use a consent form

There are also sensitive, ethical issues to consider when doing internal user research.

It’s very important that you use a consent form so that participants are clear about how the information they share will and won’t be used. For example, participants often need assurance that the information shared will be used to inform the design of the system they’re using, but won’t be passed on to their line manager for performance management purposes.

Participants are aware that the information they’re sharing could impact their career. It’s important to be sensitive to this. Protect your internal research participants in that same way as you would your external participants.

Start to end. Front and back.

As user researchers, we need to make sure we don’t just look at the experiences users have of a service at a single point in the transaction. Follow the service from the very beginning – often before it reaches government, perhaps starting with professional advisors who have user needs we could do a better job of satisfying.

And it’s not only about end to end, but also front of house to back of house.

Ministry of Justice user researcher, Ana Santos:

When delivering a service, it’s important to consider the link between the internal and the publics’ user needs of the service, so you’re not creating a silo’ed service with mismatched expectations on either side. We spent a lot of time gathering needs from our internal users (court staff) and analysing how this impacted our public users. It’s important to match both groups needs in the end to end service so that you’re continuously working towards eliminating ‘waste’.

Make sure to include not only end users (front of house) but also the people inside government delivering the service (back of house) so that you understand the real opportunities to improve the service – often the best opportunities for improvement are those that are invisible to the user.

Fixing internal tools and processes might be one of the best ways to improve the service for end users

User researchers regularly find that the greatest gains in improving a service can be made by better supporting the people inside government who are doing the hard work to deliver those services. By improving internal tools and processes, we can reduce the time needed to deliver the service to end users. This should relieve backlogs and, in turn, reduce waiting time for end users.

GDS user researcher, Flora Bowden:

People can feel left in the dark and unsure about what’s happening while their application is being processed. It can be really concerning and people will want to chase up the progress or find out if something’s gone wrong. If we can improve government’s internal processes, we can speed up the waiting time and improve the service for end users.

By applying the same approach we use in improving end-user facing services to internal tools, we not only improve the working experience and efficiency of civil servants but also the experience our end users have of the service.

Doing user research for internal tools is a great way to identify opportunities to do more with less and improve the user experience all at once.

Related reading

Internet Hurting Productivity by Gerry McGovern

Technology Led Organisational Transformation Powerful Agent for Change by Tom Read

We need to talk about user needs

Originally published on the GDS User Research Blog

‘Start with user needs’ is the first of our design principles and it’s the first thing we ask teams to demonstrate to meet the Digital by Default Service Assessment. Even Members of Parliament (video) talk about user needs these days. This is all good.

But what does it actually mean to understand user needs? How do we do it right?

Observe and talk to end users

Do user research to observe and talk to users. Understand what people are really trying to do, and the real problems they have trying to get something done. That will show you what their needs are.

Needs can be functional and emotional

Needs can be functional things people need to do, for example, to check eligibility. Needs can also be emotional, perhaps people are stressed and anxious and they need reassurance.

Both of these types of needs are important to understand if you want to design services that are so good people choose to use them, and are able to use them without assistance.

There’s no substitute for talking to real users

You need to go to the source – to the user, and discover (not just validate) the user needs.

You may get some user needs from stakeholders, but you won’t get them all. You can’t even guarantee to get the most important user needs from stakeholders.

Some of our colleagues might be service users, but at the very least we tend to know far too much about government and technology to accurately represent ‘typical’ end users.

Treat ‘user needs’ from stakeholders as assumptions

You are not your user and you cannot think like a user unless you’re meeting users regularly.

Our delivery teams and various stakeholders never accurately represent our end users. Not even when our end users are civil servants. Treat any user needs you get from stakeholders as assumptions.

Get out into the field

In the discovery phase of your project, your team should be out in the field doing user research. You should be discovering what your end users are doing when they encounter your service.

This let’s you make sure that your service is a verb – a thing that supports a task that people are trying to do, not a noun – the thing you’ve always called the form before.

Understanding user needs saves money

Understanding user needs enables better service design which results in greater digital take up, higher compliance, more effective policy outcomes, fewer user errors and inaccuracies, reduced failure demand and, overall, makes your service better value and cheaper to run.

And it also just makes the world a better place. That’s good too.

Doing user research in the discovery phase

Originally published on the GDS User Research Blog

Here are some things you should know about doing user research in the discovery phase.

  1. You should definitely do user research in the discovery phase.Understanding who your users are and what’s going on when they come across your service is one of the most important parts of discovery. Have an experienced user researcher in your discovery team. Plan for the rest of the team to spend plenty of time going out into the field to meet real users with the user researcher.
  2. Discover people not projects. If you want to deliver a service that really meets user needs, you need to understand what people are trying to do, and how they’re trying to do it, when they encounter your service. This means that research during discovery might seem ‘bigger’ than it needs to be for your specific project. This is because you’ve got a bunch of preconceived ideas about what your project should be. This is exactly why we do user research: to find out what people are doing now to solve their problem, understand what needs they have, and to understand how we can best help meet those needs. Then it’s time to work out what the project should be.
  3. Discovery is for discovering, not for prototyping. Making is an excellent way to learn about a problem, but that doesn’t mean you need to make from the very beginning. Put the code away for a few weeks, get out into the field, and understand your users. Understand how different they are from you and your team. Spend some time doing this at the outset of the project, and it’s much more likely that the thing you make will meet everyone’s needs and not just yours.
  4. If you haven’t discovered you were wrong about some things, you probably haven’t done it right. Discovery is not for validation. The point of research during discovery is to work out what people need, and what you need to do to meet those needs. It’s not to prove that a project should proceed. If you set out to validate, you won’t learn what you don’t know. What you don’t know is the thing that will ultimately make your project fail. It’s fine to have some hypotheses about what the project will be, but go into discovery to test those hypotheses, not to validate assumptions. The way you frame the user research in discovery will make all the difference.
  5. Do qualitative, contextual user research in discovery. Try to meet at least 6-8 people of each ‘type’ of user of your service. (Your user researcher will help you understand what ‘types’ there might be and which ones matter). Go to the place your users are currently doing the thing you’re going to make better, and get them to show you how it works, what it looks like, how it makes them feel (user needs are both functional and emotional). Don’t ‘outsource’ this and get a report and a presentation at the end – bring the team along to observe the user research – everyone should see at least 2 interviews.
  6. Maps and stories are good things to make with user research in discovery. Lots of teams have found that making maps of the journey that people go through (in doing the thing they need to do when they encounter your service) can be useful. It’s also important to try to capture the stories of the people you meet, what they’re doing and what their needs of the service are. There is no one right way to do this – talk to other people who have tried different things to get inspiration (being part of the cross government user research community is a great way to do this).

Doing user research to understand your users will help make sure you design the right thing, before you start worrying about designing it the right way.