User research in agile product delivery

Last September I joined the HMRC digital team working in London as a user researcher. My job was to help deliver research to inform the product development and designs of the new online exemplar services, in particular the PAYE company car reporting service. I was really excited to work as an embedded researcher in an agile delivery team. It’s been amazing to see the prototype designs continually develop with real, direct input from user research.

As part of building the Beta service, I’ve planned sessions, written discussion guides and honed my moderation and analysis skills. Doing the work in-house has allowed a lot of flexibility, as prototype tweaks can be made last minute and analysis debriefs can be run the day after interview sessions. Insights are known and understood across the core project team and findings are fed into the next sprint, as well as being shared at fortnightly ‘stand up’ meetings.

On the PAYE company car service alone, we’ve done over 50 hours worth of interviewing and 10 rounds of iterative user research. We travelled to Newcastle, Nottingham, Glasgow, London and Belfast so we could speak to a breadth of company car owners across the UK. Listening and responding to the needs of people is what it’s all about!

We now know much more about the appeal, triggers, barriers, ease of use and comprehension of the service compared with six months ago. We’ve re-ordered, taken out and reworded form questions based on user feedback.

Using ‘think aloud’ usability techniques and also through less moderated sessions we’ve both seen and heard specific reactions to the different transaction elements, content, links, layout and functionality etc. All of which has been fed back into development and sprint stories.

We’ve been able to validate and further understand user needs. For most, it boils down to ‘I have a company car and want to tell HMRC to make sure I’m paying the right amount of tax.’ People talk about the benefit of being in control, perceiving it as quicker, easier and more accurate for them to tell HMRC about changes rather than waiting for their employer to do it. Those who welcome it the most tend to have had experience of being on the wrong tax code due to a new company car or change in contributions and ended up over or under paying tax over many months.

We also discovered another user need for people who want ‘to make a decision on which car is most tax efficient,’ before submitting anything to HMRC. As a result we now link to the existing HMRC company car calculator and plan to redevelop and improve the design of this in the future.

The new service to tell HMRC about a change to your company car is really about giving people more choice and control in their interactions with HMRC. Some people have compared it with online banking. Here’s a few quotes from user testing;

 When you approach it you think it’s going to be a lot to do. [But] This seems very quick….there is immediate [benefit] because I get my tax information straight away. If you ask for the information from accounts you sometimes don’t get it for a couple of weeks.

To have transparency where you can see that you’ve made an error, change it and update it. The onus is on you to put in correct information. I think it’s very good.

I like the way it was simple, quick and easy. It would encourage me to use the site again. I’m here to do taxes, not enjoy myself.”

Agile team members and stakeholders are invited to view sessions, or watch remotely and it’s been great to see the interest from colleagues. I think our designer has attended almost every session and our service manager always dials in if he can’t make it. We talk about research here as being a team sport!

We do our best to follow the Government Digital Service maxims;

  • don’t design anything for more than 2 weeks without watching end users using it
  • everyone on the team observes users using their product for at least 2 hours every 6 weeks, from Business Analysts to developers

Working with colleagues across the department

It’s also been great to work with research colleagues in HMRC’s Behavioural Evidence and Insight team, as well as colleagues from the wider programme that’s delivering the exemplars. We’ve worked together to co-ordinate research and procurement requirements and to share learnings on commissioned studies. We’ve also had the benefit of two HMRC people helping with all the user research, which has been invaluable.

Overall it’s been a rewarding place to work as I’ve had the opportunity to bring the users’ voice right into the heart of the product development and delivery.

And this is only just the beginning. The digital revolution in HMRC has only just started.

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