What Parliament does affects everyone in the UK. Some activities - like making laws and letting people give their opinion - are things that a lot of people care about.
Parliament also does things that are only of interest to a select audience, like altering our tax arrangements with Uzbekistan. It’s therefore unrealistic to assume that everyone cares about everything Parliament does. Luckily that’s something we've taken into consideration when we've been building our new website.
Why it’s important to know our audiences
Parliament has grown organically over hundreds of years and can be complicated to understand. It’s also unlikely to get simpler anytime soon.
People who work in Parliament deal with this complexity every day. It’s also easy for staff not to be aware of what people outside of Parliament understand and care about.
We also massively overestimate how much even very specialist followers of Parliament understand. Parliamentary procedure can be impenetrable, even to the people who deal with it every day. Staff here often rely on support from others, like phoning Parliament’s help desk or some favourite clerks.
We also overestimate how much people care about information from Parliament. Everyone who visits our website is coming with a specific goal in mind. Everything they see that isn’t relevant to their goal can be a distraction and makes achieving their goal harder.
By understanding who our users really are, what they’re trying to get done, and what information we need to supply, we can accurately judge how useful what we make is. It also helps us judge how successful we’ve been when wrapping up a piece of work.
So, who are our audiences?
The research agency, Bunnyfoot, did a broad research piece to explore who the users of the parliamentary website are. Some of the groups who use the website currently include:
- members of the public who care about local or national issues
- visitors to Parliament
One of our digital strategy aspirations is to be transparent, open, and inclusive. In terms of the parliamentary website, this could mean making our site understandable and accessible to these audiences. Allowing our audiences to recognise the relevance that Parliament has to their lives.
It’s a worthy long-term goal. However, we recognise that different parts of the website currently have different audiences. To make sure we’re providing the most benefit, the approach we're taking uncovers and prioritises the existing audience of each ‘part’ of the website.
Most people encounter the things that happen in Parliament through intermediaries, like industry specialists who follow Parliament’s activity on behalf of their organisation, or political journalists who summarise it on the Ten O’Clock News.
For the work our teams are doing, we’re often working with these very specialist audiences, including those who follow and report on Parliamentary activity for others.
Some examples of the groups we research with and design for include:
- government officials who follow statutory instruments
- researchers who read research briefings for their job
- journalists who cover the activity of MPs and Lords
- people working for MPs and Lords who need to understand how to do their job
- visitors who book tickets to Parliament through the website
Some of these groups can be very small, and hard to get hold of, which is one of the most common challenges our researchers face. So we often have to partner with an external recruitment company to help us find exactly the right people.
How we learn who the audience is for a specific project
The approach we take to learn this follows the same broad steps:
- We start by thinking about who we assume potential users are. These can be uncovered by speaking to people who work in Parliament, looking at relevant research, and reviewing our growing knowledge of who cares about Parliament.
- We then verify and build on this. This involves finding those potential users, and interviewing or observing them to learn who they are and what they do, and what their interest in the subject matter is.
- This then gives us an understanding of what the people who care about this topic are trying to achieve. The product team can then look at what would be useful to make (if their goal is to make something useful).
- As things start to exist, we can then run usability tests to assess whether it’s achieving the goals it was designed to meet.
This approach has the side benefit of giving guidance for researchers. When we’re presented with work and asked, “Can we do user testing on this to see if it’s useful?”, we'll already have an idea about what’s useful, and can give initial feedback based on whether it’s achieving the things that the team learned.
We still see misconceptions from people who don’t work closely with researchers that product teams are unrealistic about who cares about Parliament’s activity. This is to be expected.
Being exposed to real users can be a direct challenge to some of the assumptions that have been made. Discovering what’s useful and if we're achieving it from speaking to users is definitive evidence, rather than opinion. It’s normal for us to see defensive behaviour that challenges the methods ("You’re doing research wrong") or the audience ("These aren’t the people the website is for") when people feel a personal connection to the work that’s being done.
Our approach gives us confidence when we advocate for making usable and useful pages that allow relevant people to get stuff done. We know we've spoken to the right people and we have evidence supporting this which gives us reassurance.
This is important to us because we want teams to be able to do good work. This involves being honest about what they’re building and who it’s for. Our researchers give teams the tools to validate that their work is useful and working as intended, rather than relying on guessing or opinions.
Exposing your work to scrutiny like this takes bravery, and I’m really impressed with how Parliament’s product teams have understood and embraced this. This is a really important step towards building a website we can be proud of.
Read more posts on the work we're doing to improve parliament.uk.