Why charities must put users first

User research, once considered nice to have, must now be an integral part of any digital change project that claims to be serious. As part of its work with CAST’s Fuse accelerator, Action for Children has put the user firmly centre stage. Its digital services manager Rachael Townley explains.

Before starting on CAST’s Fuse accelerator this spring, I worked daily in a head office job at Action for Children, a charity that develops and delivers services to support disadvantaged children, young people and families across the UK.

young-children-playingI had been pretty confident that I had a good grasp of what our services needed, from my privileged position as part of the digital team at head office working with the charity’s services team. I speak to staff in the services team pretty much on a daily basis, I visit a service about once a month and I usually know someone somewhere I can speak to.

How wrong I was. On day one of Fuse, we started trying to hone our ‘problem definition’ (the first step of the service design process), and categorising our knowledge into ‘what we know’, ‘what we think we know’ and ‘what we don’t know’. This helps reveal which things are based on solid evidence, and which are pure assumption. I very quickly became aware that actually I knew very little about what our services – and most importantly our service users – really want and need from us.

So on day two I started using the ‘knowing someone somewhere’ trick to talk to people who work in or use our support centres. I contacted a few familiar faces and asked to speak to them on the phone. This started with members of staff, who then suggested parents who I could talk to and services I could visit.

The idea of feedback from real users was great. But getting it’s not as easy as you might think.

Since then, wonderful members of staff have been providing me with amazing insights into our services. But they are immensely busy. So, I quickly learnt that my interviews with them needed to stay short and to the point, with a request to follow up where necessary using whatever communication method fits best into their packed schedules.

Similarly, when I am given details of parents to speak to, it’s a case of doing it whenever suits them. If this means changing a plan for an entire day then I’ll do it.

It is always worth disrupting the best-laid plans to hear the experiences of these parents. Everything they tell me is helping to shape the new digital service we’re designing, and ensure that what we’re working on is the best solution for that user group.

I generally don’t like talking on the phone to people I don’t know, especially in front of other people. But time on Fuse is precious and I’ve very quickly had to overcome this and just get on with it. And it’s been incredible actually.

1108a4a2-2f94-43fe-9605de8ea0771612If you don’t put yourself out there and have these phone calls, your emails will just get lost because these people are so busy. And you can learn so much more on a call about what really motivates, or frustrates, a person. So pick up the phone, reach out to people and you’ll better understand what your users need from you.

I think what has made it easier for me to be able to speak to services and service users is that, before I started Fuse, I already had existing relationships with some service staff around the country. This helped me build the confidence to start asking to speak to people.

So, if you’re about to embark on something similar, I’d definitely recommend starting today to build relationships with people who you can speak to and who can act as ‘gatekeepers’ to your service users.

I’m at the start of month two of the accelerator, and it’s been quite a learning curve. I genuinely feel like everyone I have spoken to so far has given me the most eye-opening introduction to our services, in a way that I never before quite understood the underlying – and not always immediately obvious – value they provide.

This makes it a worthwhile exercise for that alone. But on an immediate level on Fuse it’s also enabling me to keep our users at the heart of the project.