At the end of March I said goodbye to my colleagues in PDS as I'd just finished my six month secondment as a User Researcher from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).
I've talked to a lot of people about what I've learnt and now it's time for a blog post.
A different type of research
POST is Parliament's in-house source of scientific advice. One of its jobs is to provide MPs and Lords with information based on research. The job is varied as the research can range from dietary advice for pregnant women to the UK plutonium stockpile.
I decided to do the secondment because I wanted to try working in digital as a possible new career direction (in my search for ikigai). I had concerns I would struggle when I made the move from POST to PDS. Would I miss science? I would also need to learn new skills, a new way of working and work with a whole bunch of new people. And I did struggle. But I also learnt lots so here’s some of the things I learned.
Find good teachers
When I joined two other User Researchers - Dana Demin and Steve Bromley - started soon after. Both had more experience than me and I learned a lot from them. Steve spent time with me explaining user research concepts. For example, how we were confusing user stories with epics. We also ran a workshop to figure out how to marry user needs with business constraints.
Dana pushed me to get my hands dirty and do all the things I needed to do to be a User Researcher. This included writing a discussion guide and dealing with the recruiter. Having these people around definitely helped me learn faster.
Be a curious sponge
This was also my first time working in agile. I had been on a course about digital project management so knew a bit of theory. When you get thrown in and just start doing it there’s quite a lot of assumed knowledge and customs. It felt like being in a foreign country. I didn’t know what I was allowed to do or was meant to be doing. It was only after absorbing what was going on and asking questions did I feel comfortable.
I've learnt a lot from being around my baking brother, Head of Data and Search, Dan Barrett. It was a chance to see his team values first hand. He's always questioning what he does to make their work better. He's come up with things that work for him and his team including whole day planning sessions.
He does all the ceremonial agile stuff like retros and chews over the big issues. He invites people in and talks through what to do about the issues. He also publishes notes for everyone to see. These are great especially reading about the frustrations the team experiences as you're not always aware of these.
Around January Dana decided to do some lab testing with users. We didn't have a lab and we hadn't done usability testing before. This was a move to force people to start running research and to push us to get into a cycle of testing. The best thing that came out of this was people watched the sessions and got excited by the new activity.
I also wrote a blog post about setting up a lab.
With every complex problem, you're bound to have difficulties and disagreements. Perhaps the biggest one was working with user needs and building a data driven website around a domain model.
I’ve been in meetings where people had differing opinions about which way the new website should go. Things would get frustrating and both sides would refuse to budge. It made me realise how important it is that everyone involved maintains respect and professionalism when tackling different viewpoints.
Take the time to explain what you do
There's still more work for PDS to do to explain what user research is and how it can help build better products and services. At the moment people see it as a shop. People point at usability testing and say “I want that”.
Usability testing might be the wrong tool for the question they need answering. User researchers need to be trusted as experts to choose the right research method. And work with them in discovering the answers to your questions.
A few small celebrations. I made some stickers which everyone seemed to love. I became a researcher. And I totally didn’t fail at this digital thing. In fact, I quite liked it and I’ll be bringing my new skills and knowledge back to POST.
So thanks to Emma Allen, Digital Development Director, for letting me come over. Thanks to POST for letting me go. Thanks to Dan for being my baking buddy. Thanks to Dana and Steve for being those teachers you never forget. And thanks to #teampds for the bantz.
Read more posts from Henry during his time at PDS.