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Why everyone needs to be in the room for user research

Our approach in PDS is to bring people along with the user research. I did this for the newly launched website for the Parliamentary Archives, with some very positive outcomes.

I used research early on in the process to help identify requirements for the transformed Archives website.

When the site was getting close to launch, we wanted to carry out some testing with our intended users to see how well the site would help them reach their goals and to identify any major issues before the site went live.

Hot ticket

I was really keen for stakeholders to see first hand what the users encountered in using the site. I organised a round of testing in a usability lab and invited members from all the teams involved to observe some sessions. Our participants included an academic, a journalist, a legal professional, and someone with a personal interest in history. For this round, we focused on how well the catalogue worked to help users find things they were interested in.

Observers included colleagues from the Archives and PDS, and we were really pleased that our development partners, OrangeLeaf, joined the observations. The event drew such a crowd, I created an attendance rota to make sure everyone that was interested was able to get in.

It was very encouraging that so many people wanted to see what happened in the sessions.

Seeing is believing

My user research colleague, Dana Demin, recorded our main observation notes. These were supplemented by a mountain of post-its that our audience eagerly contributed to. This showed us how engaged everyone had been with what they saw. I used them for some detail in the analysis and you should always be careful what you wish for as there were so many.

Having the developers in the observation room for all the sessions meant they got to see everything that happened. This made it easy for me to communicate insights that came out of the research as I was able to refer to data that the developers would recognise in my findings.

Accessible design

It’s important to me to make things that are accessible to everyone. This year, it’s also a legal requirement that we make new public websites meet WCAG 2.1 AA standards.

We use the services of the Digital Accessibility Centre (DAC) to analyse all of our websites. They reviewed the Archives website for us and tested the catalogue search as well as some of the content pages. DAC’s report gave the developers excellent analysis and recommendations on the usability of the site for people with a range of access needs.


It’s great to know that the OrangeLeaf developers are now determined to use the insights and recommendations from both phases of testing to improve the Archives website.

We learned lots about what our users find important when looking for things of interest. Good descriptions and visuals are very valuable to users. We also saw that people needed more help to understand what the Archives contain and how the catalogue is organised. While experts could navigate around hierarchy links with ease, some less experienced users became quickly disorientated in the lists. Our collections are stuffed with 300 years of parliamentary history and we need to make it clearer what those records actually contain.

I think that involving the teams who built and run the Archives site has made a big difference to their understanding of how people use their online services.

In future iterations, we're adding things like user registration and wishlists. I’m looking forward to trying these out with users and bringing colleagues along to see the show.

Read about how we worked with the Archives to build their new website.

*featured image by Paul Downey using Creative Commons License 2.0.

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