Nicola headshot

Alumni Insight – Working in the human side of technology

We’re delighted to share a #TechTuesday guest blog post from University of Edinburgh, Business and Law alumnus, Nicola Hancock. Nicola is a User Researcher within the User Centred Design team, Digital Transformation Division of the Scottish Government… read on for a great insight into the interesting role of User Researcher.

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While interviewing some people in their home, after an hour our session was ‘rudely’ interrupted by these two demanding attention.

I have been working in my current role for about 7 months and I’m really enjoying it. However, I wasn’t aware of a User Researcher role, when I left university and it took me a few years after graduating to find out this type of job existed.

I started out working in marketing and social media for a digital magazine, did some web-related work for a digital agency and moved on to office management at Nile, a service design consultancy; it was here that I discovered the role of User Researcher as a career path. My route into User Research from office management wasn’t so much about networking. Instead, I took advantage of the learning opportunities available to me which included a lot of reading on the subject. I also reviewed people’s reports, gave feedback and shadowed user research sessions. This demonstrated that I had the knowledge to progress into another role within the same organisation.

So, you may be reading this and thinking, “What exactly is a User Researcher?”

In simple terms, a User Researcher conducts research with users. The aim is to really understand what’s needed by people who use a service and ensure that it is fed into the design. I spend most of my time:

  • Scoping research approaches suitable to the problems brought to me
  • Chatting to citizens and getting their thoughts and feedback on designs, live services or even early thoughts on what a new service could look like
  • Making sense of all those conversations and assimilating information into something that our delivery team can apply to their work

The end result is hopefully a new or redesigned service that is useful and usable.

Why do User Research?

What I love about this varied role is that you never stop learning; about subjects, places and people.

I’ve covered areas from how people manage their personal finances to understanding relationships between healthcare technology providers in the NHS to personal experiences of divorce and separation. Similarly, the stage of the design process you come in to means you can be looking at topics from a different angle, and working with different shapes of teams. You can be involved in anything from early concepts of what a service could be through to refining the final outcome.

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I managed to fit in a visit to some Neolithic (very, very old) standing stones on Orkney called the Ring of Brodgar. It was February and I had the place to myself, an experience I won’t forget.

Plus, you get to speak to different groups of people through the research that you do and, more often than not, it makes sense to travel to them. I got to go to Orkney earlier this year – which was great! Most recently, I’ve been meeting people who have disabilities to better understand how they do things online, any barriers or challenges they have and how we can improve the experience for them. It’s been eye-opening in so many ways.

What is User Centred Design?

We’ve all had that experience of a clunky website with the next step being unintuitive, or that phone call you make to get a problem resolved but you’re put on hold and passed around different departments. These are examples of poorly designed (or sometimes not at all designed) experiences. By involving people/users/customers/citizens in the process of creating and evaluating services (i.e. putting them at the centre) you think about things from their perspective, put a stop to poor experiences and get a usable and useful service.

When designing services, you could probably get part of the way there with common sense, but it’s a much better use of your time to make informed decisions and work with your users to develop the best outcome for them. Also, when you’re working in the detail you can easily miss things that become obvious when you put something in front of someone who doesn’t have all the context and understanding of a service that you have.

The roles in User Centred Design in the Scottish Government include: user research, service design, performance and analytics, content design, accessibility research, graphic design and interaction design.

What is Digital Transformation and what does it involve?

Our team are focused on supporting wider Government to create user centred digital solutions and ways of working. However, that doesn’t mean rolling out technology and making everything digital; that’s where the user centred bit comes in. The challenge is about making sure that solutions are cost-effective, usable and inclusive. The latter is particularly important in the context of Government services because not everyone has the same access or privilege and public services should and must accommodate for all.

Digital Transformation can also be about changing behaviours and mindsets of teams that are being told they need to work in a way that is different to what they’re used to. User centred design is still a relatively new practice and convincing people that working in this way, with users at the heart of what you do, is often a key part of the work that we do. You need to be a clear communicator and collaborate with people to help them understand the value in this relatively new way of working.

Parting advice…

My route into User Research wasn’t linear and I was very lucky to come across it. The key skills required are empathy, careful listening, relationship building, problem solving, the ability to analyse lots of information and learn about new topics quickly.

It’s a really exciting time to be working in user centred design at the Scottish Government as more organisations move towards designing public services with citizens. If you fancy a job that is dynamic, fast-paced and rewarding, I’d recommend it.

Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities in the Scottish Government here and follow @digitalscots on Twitter to stay up-to-date with the world of Digital Government.

Images courtesy of Nicola Hancock







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