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Working with the Commons Library to develop a new tool

People in the House of Commons Library
Image by UK Parliament

Doing research is an essential part of the work we do at PDS. We do it to make sure the products and services we develop actually work for those that need them.

We continually work with people and departments across Parliament to build our products and I recently worked with the House of Commons Library staff and Visitor Services. This was to help inform the development of a new product they hope to release later in the year.

Providing a valuable service to MPs and staff

The Commons Library provide an important and valuable service to MPs and their staff, and research papers are one of their main products. As well as writing detailed research papers, the Library researchers regularly provide MPs and their staff with statistics about their constituency and help them with a variety of procedural tasks including preparing for debates and asking questions.

Demand for the Library services is high. Where possible, Library staff help people to seek out information independently which can be more efficient for staff, and ease the demand on Library researchers.

The Library currently has a selection of tools available to explore constituency, regional, and local authority data, as well as national data, but they’re aware they need to improve them.

The plan is to create a new and improved tool for MPs and their staff that will be on the Parliament website. To build something that works well, they need to understand more about how people currently find this information, whether they use the current tools, and what they want. That’s where we come in.

Speaking to users

Over a couple of weeks, we interviewed MPs’ staff working in different roles in constituency offices and in Westminster.

I asked questions like how they find out constituency statistics, what tools they currently use, and what challenges they face. I also made sure to learn more about MPs' staff and their role.

I see my job as not just doing research for new digital services and products, but building better relationships between PDS and people across Parliament. Learning more about life as an MP’s staff, both in Westminster and the constituency, helps me:

  • explain the reality of other roles to my team (and not just the immediate need as related to our product)
  • build better relationships across Parliament
  • build better products

A speedy and reliable service

Staff raved about the service from the Library, mentioning the speed and reliability of their services. This helps to explain the heavy reliance on Library staff for constituency statistics. As one MP’s staff put it:

I would rather ask the Library and get it right than do it myself

However there was a willingness to independently look for information before asking the Library. Many also saw it as a waste of the Library’s valuable time to ask them for something that already exists. Staff often used other sources, but none offered a ‘one stop shop’ for constituency statistics on important topics like the Library.

The Library therefore felt there's an opportunity to provide a tool which has the trustworthiness of their service but helps staff to quickly find varied, relevant, and up to date statistics.

It became clear that awareness of the current tool, and what it provided, was low. Those who knew about it were often unaware of its link to the Library. We realised that future tools will need to be publicised more, and the research gave the Library confidence that engagement with the tool has a good chance of being positive, especially given their reputation.

We also found that many enthusiastically mentioned other Library communications. Things like the monthly employment statistics email, meaning MPs and their staff engage with current services and are likely to use any new offerings.

Building a prototype based on real insights

This background research, or discovery as we often call it, is an important first step when building any product or service. Understanding the context in which people work, the challenges they face, and being able to build a list of needs, will help the Library to build a prototype based on real insights.

Our job isn’t done here though. Once the Library have built something, we’ll test it out. Testing prototypes with real people in the context of their roles helps us to understand how well it will really work, and make sure that the products we build ultimately serve Parliament in the best possible way.

Read more about the work of the user research team

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