Anyone working in teams with competing priorities will know how it goes when work gets “parked” or “paused”.
For researchers, it can be quite challenging for a couple of reasons.
One is that the team has been immersed and invested in finding out about the users and their needs, and most importantly, the problems they might currently have. When you stop or pause work, some of that expertise and enthusiasm will disappear over time. People move on to other teams or organisations and the momentum is gone.
The other challenge is the loss of knowledge. How do you make sure that things that were learned by this group of people are not lost when the work is eventually picked up again? Documenting the research sounds like a fairly easy - but boring - desk job that just needs to be done to get it out of the way. But it's not.
What makes documenting learning tricky is that it’s used for different purposes. For example, researchers might want to get stuck into the raw data like interview transcripts and videos to get a better sense of where the findings originate from and to evaluate what research has been done, and how.
For a team ready to get immersed in understanding the problem, the sheer amount of raw can quickly become overwhelming. Therefore, the team might need something that allows them to experience what users are going through and tells a compelling story, rather than an exhaustive report on all the different aspects of the problem.
Contacting MPs and Lords
One of the product teams in PDS started to look into issues around people contacting MPs and Lords last year. I joined the team just as their original plans for this had to pause to allow for newly prioritised work relating to the activity of MPs and Lords. When the original work was resurrected in summer 2018, the first natural thing was to have a look at the research that had already been done.
There’s a lot of user research that’s been done in PDS in the last couple of years and much of it has touched on how people get in contact with MPs and Lords, what kind of perceptions they have of Parliament, and other things that could impact on how people might communicate with MPs and Lords.
There has also been research conducted with MPs’ staff and internal enquiries teams who have helped shed light on what type of things people contact MPs and Lords about and what barriers there might be. This research has often been done by product teams as a response to questions they were exploring in a particular moment in time, and has since been put aside, left unfinished, or forgotten due to shifting priorities.
Stop repeating the research and doing research for research’s sake
Given that there was so much existing research, when we picked up the work in the summer it felt like a good idea to create an inventory of it all before engaging in any more. It also felt like the necessary thing to do since there have always been a lot of assumptions and anecdotal remarks about the topic of contacting an MP or Lord, from both the product teams and across Parliament.
So, the primary task for research in this discovery phase was to re-immerse the product team in what we already knew, what questions might be left to explore, and whether we could outline the biggest problems users are facing. Also, it was important to make sure this knowledge could be more easily accessed in future.
List it and make it easier to digest
The first job was to find all the sources along with the methods that had been used. This was so that we could extract observations that might be relevant for the team to better understand how people contact MPs and Lords.
The sources ranged from interview transcripts to photos, process maps, card sorts, videos, and audio recordings. It became clear all of the information needed to be presented in something more engaging than just a bunch of endless Excel sheets.
Which is why I ended up creating two different levels of documentation showing what the organisation currently knows about people contacting MPs and Lords: a list of the raw data with all the details, and themed evidence cards that could be repurposed for other areas of investigation in the future.
Once the evidence was collated, the team spent time together getting stuck into it. This took place in a workshop where the aim was to move from considering the evidence to formulating additional questions and outlining problem areas based on their impact on the users and the organisation.
Start looking at the problems (which is only the beginning)
One of the biggest issues is that people do not always know when they can contact an MP or Lord. Parliament can be hard to navigate and this often means people contact the wrong person or hesitate to get in touch as it’s unclear who does what and what they can help with (and it’s even more complicated in the devolved countries). This is reflected in the variety of queries received by MPs and Lords and also by Parliament’s enquiries teams.
What became clear from the research done by the team, as well as research reviewed in discovery, was that there are many different ways to contact MPs and Lords. For instance, you can contact them via their own websites as well as platforms such as WriteToThem. Where the Parliament website fits in to all of this is going to be an interesting question for the future.
A lot of the complex core issues with contacting MPs and Lords are things that are currently beyond scope for the new website product team. However, this doesn’t mean we can ignore them or to simply opt for delivering something that has little or no impact for users and the organisation.
The next step is to assess whether any of the problems can be addressed by the website alone, and whether we have the people with the right skills in our teams to do it. Or whether some of the problem areas need closer involvement from other teams in PDS, or Parliament as whole.
It’s been a different kind of discovery phase to ones I’ve been part of before as this one has reintroduced and reshaped existing research in a way that hopefully can be used again to introduce new team members and collaborators to the topic.
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