6 things I learned in 6 months as a user researcher

Zoe McClatchey
Jul 4 · 5 min read

I’m Zoe, a Product Design graduate from Scotland. I now live and work in Leeds for NHS Digital on the Digital Service Delivery Graduate programme.

Last September I started my journey at NHS Digital as a digital service delivery graduate. The graduate scheme with NHS Digital is made up of four, six-month placements in an assortment of roles of our choosing. For my first placement I was given the opportunity to work as a user researcher. Here are 6 things I learnt from my 6 months as a user researcher.

1. User research is about understanding needs

I have always enjoyed working in design and continued this enthusiasm as I went to study product design at university. What drew me to do the work I do is that I want to make life better for people, especially for those that don’t always get their voice heard or may have been overlooked.

I was pleased that my first six-month placement was in user research, working in the electronic referral service (e-RS). This is for NHS staff members within General practices and Hospitals. The service allows staff to refer and book patients’ appointments. I learned that the e-RS team heavily rely on user research to understand what our users really want and most importantly: what they need.

For example, while working with the e-RS team we ran research to understand how people prefer to get their referrals. Traditionally referrals are sent by post, but research had told us that some people may prefer an email. Testing of prototypes allowed us to articulate our concepts and get a true understanding of how emails might work.

2. Observing the service in use gives richer information

As part of the e-RS team, we visited GPs across the country to test our prototypes with clinicians and admin staff.

As well as asking users to try our prototypes, we observed what happens currently in the GP surgery with the existing service. As a new member of the team, observing people using the service was a great way to learn quickly. It has been an eye-opening experience not only to see how the referral service runs, but also how each GP surgery has their own ‘work arounds’ and processes to make the service work for them. We saw so many differences, including variations in how involved the GP is, the speed of creating a referral and the ease of use of the system itself.

I learned that observing the service in use allows us to collect these richer insights and to inform our teams of what is happening in reality. This helps the team to understand the problem areas and gives them solid evidence for the necessary improvements.

3. Don’t ignore the “edge cases”

Everyone must be included in your service and if “an edge case” arises in research then investigate it. Think of it as insight: it’s probably a flaw or a slight kink that needs a little more attention to prevent an unhappy path for your user. Take the time to allow your service to work for everyone.

Why should a percentage of your users miss out or experience a less intuitive service?

4. It’s good to bring my own experiences to work

Unfortunately, from time to time I do hear the phrase “that’s an edge case”. This is not a phrase we should be hearing. And is something that resonates with me personally.

I know what it’s like to be ‘in the minority’: I was a carer to my mother who had motor impairments, and I also have dyslexia myself. From personal experience, I know that it’s hugely important not to discriminate or overlook those in a special minority.

I learned that it’s good to bring my own experiences to work, to ask for help when I need it, and to advocate for other people who might also be ‘in the minority’.

5. Change isn’t always easy

It is common for people not to like change, from my experience this is the same case when designing a service. This is true for internal stakeholders and end users.

I have learnt that when building or improving a service you have to be able to use your research well to convince people that a change is for good and will improve the service.

Building good relationships and trust between stakeholders is key when proposing change backed with research findings. I have found sometimes this can be difficult when stakeholders have not been involved in research, this heightens your responsibility as a user researcher to voice the real user needs and to advocate change.

It is also important to have trust with your users. Communicate well so the user understands what has changed and why. Having a good relationship with users helps with research participation and a willingness to be open to new proposals.

6. Get involved, User Research is a team sport!

User research is for every member of the team. I have learnt that it is important that each team member has a good understanding of what the users’ needs are, how they work and what constraints they may be facing.

It is easy for teams to forget about the user and how central user research is to product development when immersed in design and delivery. It is crucial we remember the real reason behind our work and the goal we strive for: to help the user. Research is at the heart of innovation and good meaningful design.

I am incredibly happy to have started my career in user research as it is such an important part of design and product life.

I’ve now moved on to do interaction design for my second placement. My skills developed in user research continue to be a huge importance to my work in my new placement. Every decision I make while designing has a justification behind it. Without understanding the user, the design will not fulfil the user need.

Zoe McClatchey

Written by

Graduate Designer working at NHS Digital.