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Scaling Design Research in the Government of Canada

Design research (or user research) helps us understand the people who use our services. If we understand them, we can better meet their needs. We’ve seen how important design research is to delivering people-centered digital services in our work with partners. We’ve also seen how easily it can become mistaken for public opinion research (POR.)

Earlier this year, we worked closely with TBS’s Communications and Federal Identity Policy Centre, the Privy Council Office, and Public Services and Procurement Canada to update POR guidance, to clearly define design research, including to outline that it is normally not considered POR. Updates to policy like this can play an important role in helping us do more design research across government and meet Canadians’ expectations of government services.

So how is design research unique? Let’s unpack that a bit.

In government, we’re familiar with consultations, POR and gathering business requirements as ways of engaging the public. Design research, however, is unique in its purpose, audience, questions and frequency:

  • Different purpose: Design research focuses on understanding people’s goals, behaviors and challenges. It examines how people use a particular service, and to what end, rather than overall opinions about the service.
  • Different audience: Design research studies people who use a service, through direct interaction with them. It gives a voice to the people themselves.
  • Different questions: Design research doesn’t ask people what they want from a service. It focuses on identifying what they need from a service based on their goals and barriers.
  • Different frequency: Design research happens repeatedly throughout the design of a service. We conduct a little research, early and often.

This kind of research helps us serve people better. Direct conversations with people show the diversity of their needs. Understanding the details of how people access a service help us design it better. And doing this research repeatedly makes it better.

But it’s easy to confuse design research for public opinion research. Although the methods can be similar, the goals and questions are usually different. If we hope to make new practices across government the norm, including those outlined in the GC’s Digital Standards, we need to make the direction explicit. We need to make it easy. Confusion can discourage departments from conducting design research, so the first logical step was to provide clearer guidance about how design research and public opinion research differ, and whether the process for public opinion research was to be applied to design research universally.

Although this is a small, but important, step to enable design research across government, two important things happened: delivery informed policy; and policy enabled delivery.

Bringing policy and delivery together enables us to produce better outcomes for the public. When we do this, we can update or write new policies much faster to respond to people’s needs and expectations. One of the ways we’ve approached this at CDS, is to have policy people on our delivery teams, which helps form a tight feedback loop with policy centres. In this case, we were able to quickly pass along lessons learned from our work on the ground with departments, and bring about changes to the policy guidance in just a few months.

This was one way we worked to enable design research, but there are others we’re working on. Do you have blockers to doing design research? Do you have suggestions for the guidance, or ideas on how we can scale design research? Get in touch with us!