Carving up the community: User research approaches when designing for government

5 min read Ashlea McKay

“Dear Optimal Workshop,

I am a consultant based in Canada, and I usually work on government contracts. This time, working at the municipal level, I’m struggling to find research into how to break ‘the public’ into sub user groups. More and more governments are pushing out tasks to the public (like banks did with money machines), and it’s tough because we need to understand tasks by context (that is, not all government services and products are needed by the whole public). It will be much appreciated if you can point me to any relevant and recent research.”

—Sandra

Dear Sandra,

I agree — that’s a tough one! Design work within government organizations is both interesting and complex, and while it’s great to see them embracing digital change and investing in online services, we still have lots to learn about designing for such a diverse and reliant audience.

Your question is a very important one — the quality of our user research so often depends on how we segment and recruit participants, and this is amplified when we’re working in the public service. It strikes me that what you need is research that moves you towards clarity and specificity, and away from this (funny yet painfully familiar) summary from usability.gov:


When we ask people who their audience is, they so often say the general public.

So let’s get into it.

Five ways to carve up the community into sub user groups

I’ve sourced examples and ideas from across all levels of government and from across the world because there’s so much we can learn from what the other kids are doing. For the work you’re doing at the municipal level in Canada, I think you’ll find the following five approaches particularly useful — and certainly interesting.

1. Divide users based on existing community segments

Many government organizations already segment their communities in some way (usually related to the service the organization exists to provide). Asking your clients for this information early in the project will save you a bunch of time and money, especially as they may not think to offer it.

A great example from The Department of Human Services (DHS) in Australia (Federal level): they conducted user research in 2011 to establish the public perception of their services.

Based on the report they produced, DHS identified five user groups: Older Australians, Working people, Indigenous people, Families, and People with a disability and families of children with a disability. All five align to existing community segments that they use to structure their service delivery.

2. Divide by life event

In New Zealand, there’s some very interesting work happening at the moment on a project called Result 10 (Federal Level). The aim of the project is to make dealing with government easier for people, and part of the qualitative research they’ve undertaken involved dividing users by life event. They have focused their questions on what drives people to interact with government, rather than just looking at the services themselves:

“Life is about events, not services. When customers contact government, they do so in order to achieve a goal greater than the agency’s own.”

—NZ Govt

Their research led them to identify four key groups based on life events: Tertiary students, New parents, Recent immigrants, and Recently retired. The full research report on the Result 10 project is definitely worth a read.

3. Divide by location

In September 2014 at the State level, the New South Wales State Government in Australia released a blueprint for a reform program aimed at strengthening local councils (Municipal level). In this case, we’re talking about roughly 7.5 million people.

From what I can tell, this population was broken down into sub user groups by local council (by location essentially). It make sense to me, because each local council would most likely have it’s own unique needs that would need to be considered when designing to strengthen those communities. Do explore the blueprint in more detail — a compelling read.

4. Start with a broad, non-carved-up group and zero in on emerging groups

In January 2015, John Waterworth published this article on the gov.uk blog about user research strategies that have worked rather well for his team. He recommends we ‘embrace the diversity’ of the massive user group for government services. He suggests casting a wide net to start with, and then narrowing your focus as you find out more about the users (I think it’s a fantastic approach):

“Where little is known about the user population, researchers start with a broad mix of participants and identify specific groups as they learn more.”

—John Waterworth

I also found this fascinating case study on the New Zealand Government blog (also on the Result 10 project mentioned earlier). Researchers started with a telephone survey of 1500 residents that was designed to gauge attitudes, behaviors, and service usage when dealing with government.

When they combined the results of this survey with identified pain points, seven distinct groups emerged: Anxious, Frustrated, Young, Mainstream, Unconnected, Savvy, and Conservative. Wow. I think this is really compelling stuff, and definitely worth a read — and keep an eye out towards the end for the lessons they learnt.

5. Divide by position on the digital inclusion scale

While I was digging around the gov.uk blog, I came across this gem of a case study by Simon Hurst. He and his team were working on the Carer’s Allowance Exemplar and they needed to ensure the service would work for as many people as possible.

But the user recruitment screener questions they used didn’t draw in the full spectrum of the community they needed to test with. So they used the Digital Inclusion Scale to map out the digital ability of their participants so far (below), and discover that although they had well and truly covered the upper end of the scale, they hadn’t spent enough energy involving those at the lower.


Assisted-Digital-Scale-620x358

And it worked! They were able to find the right people for their research, and they’re still using this method when recruiting participants:

“I expect this approach could be used by other services with a minimum of difficulty. It continues to work well for us.”

—Simon Hurst

A final thought

Ultimately Sandra, the best approach will depend on your project, the resources you have on hand, and the people your work aims to help. I hope these examples give you a running start!

I’ll leave you with this blog post from usability.gov in the US that includes a plethora of inspiring ideas to help you carve up the community.

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Ashlea McKay

Ashlea McKay is a UX researcher, writer and keynote speaker with an industrial design background. She has more than a decade of professional experience spanning both the public and private sectors. Ashlea co-founded Optimal Workshop's UX advice column in 2015 and is based in Australia.