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User research and content

Only create content that meets a need. Find out about users and their needs through user research.

Create content that meets a real need

Only design and write content that meets a real person’s need. 

People using government services usually don’t have a choice to go somewhere else to meet their need. They don’t read government content for fun. They are using it to get something done.

Find out about users and their needs through user research.

User research helps you:

  • understand the user, their needs, behaviours and motivations
  • work out the problems you are trying to solve with content
  • reduce the risk of creating content that is not useful or usable
  • have more certainty about what to write.

Digital Service Standard requirements

You must understand the needs of the users of your service to meet the Digital Service Standard: Criterion 1. Understand user needs.

Write for the user, not ‘an audience’

Writing for an audience is not the same as writing for the user.

The content we write might have more than one user with a range of different needs.

It’s not enough to imagine one kind of user. You need to do user research to learn about the range of users and their contexts. It's important to find out about their specific and diverse needs.

A user’s needs and context may include:

  • a primary language that is something other than English
  • assistive technology they use to read the content
  • a range of devices they use to access the content with
  • the availability and speed of their internet access
  • a need for a paper or non-digital way to access content.

Accessibility requirements

You must do user research to understand how to meet the needs and barriers for all users.

The needs of your users may not be met just by conforming with WCAG. Meeting WCAG is one important step to meet user needs.

Adjust the research approach to the context

The way you research changes based on the kind of work you are doing and its context.

If you can, work with a user researcher to plan the approach.

Policy or project work

In a policy or project context, you may be writing material that is only intended for an internal use. Only a few people might read it.

In this context you may not need to do research with the people who will read the content. You might need to find out about the subject of the content you are working on.

If you are writing about other people, make sure you are not making assumptions about them. This includes other people working in government as well as end users.

Example

You are a policy officer working on a short progress report for a senior manager. The report updates the manager on a government policy your team is developing.

As you write the report you check for assumptions about the people the policy will affect. You identify some untested assumptions so you raise this with the team for more research.

Service design and delivery

User research is critical to the service design and delivery process. In this process, everyone in the team takes part in research through the Discovery, Alpha, Beta and Live stages.

From Discovery and into Alpha stage, the research is generative. It’s about gaining insights about users, contexts and needs – usually through face-to-face interviews.

When the team moves into Beta, the research becomes evaluative. It’s about testing that the content and the design is meeting the user’s needs.

Read the DTA’s digital guides to find out about the role of user research in service design.

Example

You are a content designer working on a government service. Your team follows the service design and delivery process.

  • Discovery stage: you observe research sessions with users and help to analyse them. The user researcher plans and leads the sessions to help the team learn about the users and their needs.
  • Alpha stage: you help the team experiment with different content formats. You join research sessions to see if the prototypes help meet the user needs.
  • Beta stage: you work with the team to design content for the whole service. You observe people in usability sessions interact with the content you have designed. After analysing the research as a team, you improve the content.
  • Live stage: you and the team spend time each sprint reviewing user feedback and analytics. If there are areas that need more exploration, the researcher plans targeted research.

Communication and website teams

Teams that work on content owned by other areas of the organisation use research in different ways.

In some cases, the communications or web team may be able to lead the work and follow the service design and delivery process. In other cases, they may organise user research to support the business area.

Example

You are a writer and editor working in a corporate communications team. Your team supports several business areas that own most of the content on the website.

The team’s approach to research changes based on where content is in a content lifecycle:

  • Intent: as a team you audit website content to identify what is and is not used.
  • Plan: you join members of another team in watching user research sessions. The team observes users interacting with their content, to identify pain points. People from both teams take part in a session to analyse the research.
  • Create, check and revise: you observe readability tests of your content with end users. You edit the content in response to the user experience.
  • Maintain: you watch usability testing of content on your agency’s website. You observe users having trouble understanding a form. Following the session, you work with the business area that owns the form to improve it.
  • Remove: you help review analytics and user feedback to flag pages that have low traffic. You provide a report to the business area to recommend removing the pages.

User research is a team sport

If you are creating content you need to be part of the user research process.

It is best if you can observe research sessions led by an experienced user researcher. Then help to synthesise and analyse the research.

In a team that is delivering a service, everyone is part of research for at least 2 hours every 6 weeks. This include writers, content designers and editors.

People who work on content must be part of the discovery process. They need to observe research sessions and contribute their perspective in analysis. Content designers, writers and editors notice things that other people may miss. They provide a critical content lens on the work.

Some research is better than none

User research is a craft. If possible, get an expert to lead research. This will help you uncover as much as possible and manage bias.

If you or your team are not able to access a user researcher or to talk to users, at least do desktop research.

Desktop research

Desktop research includes looking at website analytics to identify search keywords and topics. It also involves exploring forums and social media to find out the questions people are asking and the words they use.

When you look at search data be aware that people use different words to search for and to talk about things. Search terms can also be different based on the forum and site they are using.

Desktop research will not provide the same quality of insight as you get from talking to users. It is better to do this than no research at all.

It’s also helpful to do desktop research as well as interviewing users.

Previous research

Review existing relevant research as part of your desktop research. This includes research by other teams and academic research from outside government.

When you review existing research, be aware that the context will be different. There may also be gaps in the research.

Use existing research as a starting point. It’s not helpful to research the same thing over and over.

Market research is different from user research

User research helps you understand users, their needs and the context for services.

Market research and stakeholder engagement are different types of research. They cannot give you the same insights you get from user research.

If you have a choice, do user research. It can be helpful to do market research and stakeholder management as well.

User research: know the user

User research:

  • uses qualitative research (feedback) and quantitative research (statistics)
  • focuses on the ‘why’ (including people’s underlying needs, motivations and the goals they are trying to achieve) and the 'what’ (what people actually do), as well as the usability of what is being designed
  • provides deep insights into user needs and behaviour
  • uses small-scale and often iterative techniques (for example, interviews, feedback, usability testing, sample-size testing, field studies and workshops)
  • aims to understand user needs and fix usability problems
  • helps to design content and services that are accessible and usable for all users

Market research: know the market

Market research:

  • uses quantitative research (statistics)
  • focuses on the ‘what’
  • provides broad information
  • uses wide-scale techniques (for example, focus groups, randomised control trials, surveys, analytics, and website split testing)
  • aims to understand market preferences and how to reach that market
  • helps to measure characteristics across the population to build market share in a particular segment

Stakeholder engagement: know the community

Stakeholder engagement: 

  • focuses on the ‘who’ and the ‘how’
  • provides insights that support issues management
  • uses techniques that are contextualised to the scale and complexity of the issues
  • aims to manage the influence of people and groups
  • helps the design of processes to deliver an outcome

Release notes

The digital edition introduces a new topic, user research and content. This topic draws on ideas related to user experience and design thinking. The topic is central to content strategy and content design.

Content strategy and content design were not discussed in the sixth edition. The sixth edition covered planning, monitoring and evaluating products in parts 1 and 5. Those parts were not within scope for the Live release of the digital edition.

The Content Guide pointed people to advice on user research in the Digital Service Standard.

About this page

References

Bruce L (2019) ‘Get a head start on digital projects: include content from the Discovery phase’, GatherContent blog, accessed 21 July 2020. 

Government Digital Service (2016) Content design: planning, writing and managing content, GOV.UK, accessed 1 November 2019.

Government Digital Service (2017) User research for government services: an introduction, GOV.UK, accessed 22 July 2020.

Reichelt L (2017) ‘The critical difference between user research and market research’, Digital Transformation Agency blog, accessed 1 November 2019.

Reichelt L (2018) ‘From insights to actions. Or, what should we do with this research?’, Medium, Medium Corporation, accessed 1 November 2019. 

Varcoe L (2018) ‘Better content, less content’, Digital Transformation Agency blog, accessed 1 November 2019.

This page was updated Wednesday 30 September 2020.

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