User research around digital inclusion at Caerphilly Council

Following our recent guest blog post by Caroline Millington from Caerphilly Council about their user research around digital exclusion, Izzie Hurrell tells us about the user research, building a team and what they learnt. 

Getting the partnership going with other local authorities

There’s never been a more important time to understand the barriers people are facing to accessing digital technology. The pandemic has not only exacerbated the challenges faced by those who were already digitally excluded, it has also increased the need for digital interactions – expanding the number of people who fall into this category. Research suggests it’s likely that the bar for being digital included has been permanently raised. We knew the success of this research hinged on collaboration to really understand the needs of residents. The partnerships we could build with local authority leads were therefore crucial. The local authorities involved in the project were all experiencing similar challenges around digital exclusion and had individually sought support from Welsh Government. However, each had proposed a different possible solution. As a result Welsh Government asked the authorities to first come together to better understand the problem, before jumping to identifying the solution. 

Working together and ways of working

The group was highly varied. Each authority had already done a variety of things to improve the situation, each ran their services differently, and the group contained a range of sizes and demographics. The leads in each area had quite different remits. Some authorities had worked together with others before, others hadn’t.  So, with all these very different needs and ways of working, how did we get the relationships going, and get the engagement and buy-in needed to kick off and run the research project successfully? Working remotely, we brought the leads together on Microsoft Teams to kick it off. 

After a fun check-in and introduction, to get everyone’s voice in the room, we agreed the research question, the approach, how we were going to work together and what would be needed to reach residents.  From this point onwards we met weekly to see how we were doing, present back what had been done, and plan for the next week. With this regular rhythm of catching-up, the team fostered great working relationships. These relationships without a doubt improved the quality of the outputs, as well as making the project a fun experience to be part of all round! You know you’re a team when you’re starting to create a few rituals and in-jokes. Ours was doing a different version of the check-in below every single week! 

What we did 

Conducting user research and engaging with residents about digital inclusion, in a pandemic, required some outside-the-box thinking! The colleagues we were working with across the area – employment support workers and adult learning staff – came up with lots of creative ways to reach the broad range of residents we needed to hear from. Some of the routes are outlined below:

What we found – the scale of the problem

The research used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. A survey told us a lot about what barriers people are facing, then interviews and focus groups helped us to start to understand the reasons why these barriers exist.  The survey was conducted over four weeks, completed by 2,617 residents. This told us:

Understanding who different groups of people are that are digitally excluded

We pulled together user personas on the basis of 45 interviews, also incorporating information from tutors and employment support workers about what they’re seeing and hearing on a regular basis. The personas describe real people with backgrounds, goals, and values and you can see these in the report.

Better ways to support residents

The research allowed us to gain a far deeper understanding of the needs of the residents related to digital inclusion. Armed with this, we turned our attention to thinking about better ways we could support them. Residents and staff used the report findings to come up with loads of great ideas to support residents better. Of course, residents’ needs differ greatly across different groups and demographics. So suggested interventions must be aware of their local context and community. Gaps appeared in device loaning schemes, in one authority they had lots of devices, but a year later they still hadn’t passed the Corporate IT checks needed to loan them out. We suggested ways in which this could be navigated, for specifics on what we tried, see the image below.

In other areas, they turned their attention to a one to one drop in model of support focusing everyday activities relevant to the resident.  Our experience of trying to solve complex problems at scale tells us that it’s often difficult to understand which ideas will work in practice without first testing them. This includes making sure ideas are relevant and adapted to local contexts.

Prioritising change and scaling success

We recommended that the ideas identified are prioritised in collaboration with service users. In the next phase of the project, rather than rolling ideas out across the region, they will be tested with residents on a small scale to understand their potential for impact. This will give us a better understanding of which ideas work in practice, not just in theory, and will provide the evidence and confidence to invest in scaling the successful ideas regionally.

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