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Guest post: user research meets PhD research

People looking at a map and being observed
Image by Mario Mancuso using Creative Commons License 2.0

In my ‘day job’ I’m a PhD researcher at the University of Southampton. I work at the Web Science Centre for Doctoral Training. I research how music taste and consumption are shaped by music streaming. I also look at the ways companies use digital data to ‘curate’ our consumption experiences.

Over the summer holidays I took a break from my PhD for a two week placement with the user research team at the PDS. I wanted to learn more about the profession and decide whether it’s the right career for me so here’s what I found.

What I got up to

Jack WebsterMy placement started with a ‘crash course’ in user research from Steve Bromley. This helped me to understand what user research is and what they do at PDS.

I did some interviews and participant observations with members of staff in Parliament. I sat in on a range of meetings about the design and development of projects. I had several one-to-one meetings with different people working across the organisation including product managers, designers and analysts.

Research contributes to the delivery of digital services

By observing user researchers and their interactions with other teams, I learnt how user research contributes to the delivery of digital services. I discovered why it's important to identify user needs at the start of the design process and to test prototypes and assumptions.

I also saw some of the challenges that user researchers face. Communicating research findings to make sure the design and development of products are led by user needs can be challenging.

Strangely I found it comforting that this reflected my own experiences of doing research at university. I also have to think carefully about how I tailor my research to different audiences from computer science to sociology researcher and to convince them of its worth.

Doing applied research

As part of my PhD I do a lot of interviews to learn about music streaming. I wanted to use this opportunity to get some experience in ‘applied research'. One of the biggest differences between applied and academic research is the speed at which user research must be completed.

The design of the research, recruiting participants, interviewing, analysis and the write-up usually has to be completed in a week. That’s not long! By scoping the aims of the research in detail at the beginning, researchers can make sure data collection is focussed and efficient.

Working behind the scenes at Parliament

Finally, one of the unexpected outcomes of my time at PDS was that I learnt what it’s like to work in Parliament. Most of this insight came about while doing user research with members of staff about their jobs. It’s quite an unusual way to learn about what somebody does.

In particular, it was interesting to observe how people negotiate the tension between the historical (and perhaps a little quaint) traditions of Parliament and the demands of a modern world.

Overall my work experience was a great way to get an insight into the work of a user researcher within the public sector. It also gave me some experience doing some work-based research.

I’d like to thank PDS for hosting me for two weeks and extend my thanks to the people who took the time to help me, especially those in the user research team.

Read more about the work of the user research team

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