In this blog post, I describe our experience using experience mapping, whilst collaborating with four other councils on a user research discovery funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).
Croydon Council previously blogged about how we started working together and our delivery lead Naintara Land recently wrote about understanding the needs of people doing user research in local government.
The aim of our collaboration is to explore whether one council can use research from another council to improve the same statutory service. One of our central challenges was agreeing a common approach across five councils, so that we could compare findings and see whether similar themes were emerging.
We picked adult social care as our service area after getting agreement from all the councils involved. We wanted to understand the journey people go through when they ask for help with social care. To achieve this, we decided to experiment with experience mapping during our research with residents and adult social care colleagues.
Learning the process together
This was a new methodology for most of the team. We were excited to try a new technique and one which might help us compare findings. To begin with, we practiced in groups of three. Taking it in turns to be the interviewer, note taker and participant.
The interviewer asks the participant to describe a recent challenging experience from start to finish. Such as a time their commute didn’t go according to plan. As the participant talks through what happened, the interviewer maps out each step of their journey on post-it notes. The note taker uses different coloured post-it notes to capture what the participant said and did, their feelings and any difficulties they experienced at each stage.
We found it helps if the interviewer then plays back the steps to the participant. Presenting back the map enables the participant to check the accuracy of what’s been recorded and to see if they’ve missed anything from their journey. We also learnt how important and challenging the role of the note taker can be in capturing the details. It was useful to remind ourselves of the anatomy of a good sticky note blog post here, and to practise in groups so that you switch roles and get a different perspective.
Next, it was time to pilot test this approach with adult social care colleagues.
The importance of piloting
Earlier in the project we ran a workshop at Hackney where we brainstormed the topics we needed to cover in research sessions. We explored best practice for getting participant consent and reviewed our existing council consent forms too. As a result, we produced shared discussion guides and consent forms. These are now available for other councils to reuse on our User Research Library.
I piloted experience mapping with some social workers. This provided an opportunity to validate our methodology, whilst trialling our staff discussion guide and consent form before other councils started using them. Each social worker talked me through two of their recent cases. I then asked follow up questions on their typical workload. It was a lot to cover and their case studies seemed to be things that went well or cases they were proud of.
We wanted to hear about the challenging cases too. I amended our discussion guide so that participants focused on describing a recent complex case, which they’ve taken from start to finish. Some of the cases I heard about were still in progress and I wanted to understand the details of their end to end journey. Other improvements included adding timings to the discussion guide to help structure the sessions and simplifying wording in our consent form to make it easier to read.
The whole process helped us realise the importance of piloting user research. So when it came to starting experience mapping with residents who’ve asked for help with adult social care, we ran a pilot for that too.
Sharing experiences and best practice
I also played back my initial staff experience maps to the user researchers in the collaboration at one of our meet-ups. The idea was to help others learn from my experience before trying it for the first time. Mirabai from Croydon Council then did the same with a resident experience map she created after trialling our shared resident discussion guide and consent form.
Staggering the research across the five councils resulted in us regularly checking in on how things were progressing. We shared our experiences and best practices with each other, iterating our approach along the way.
We made sure we prepared for our research with residents by considering safeguarding issues, speaking to subject matter experts and being ready to direct participants to places where they can find more information and support if they needed it.
We had some challenges using the experience mapping technique, especially when carrying out research with vulnerable adults in their home. When explaining what happened, participants had a tendency to switch between different parts of their story or go off topic. You need to bring them back to concentrating on what happened next, so that you can go through it step-by-step and use probing questions to ensure you get enough detail at each stage.
Julie from Essex County Council gave us a great tip for experience mapping during home visits. Instead of mapping out the experience on a large sheet of paper, just bring along a notebook and place each post-it note step on a page. You can then read back each page in the journey to the resident like you’re telling a story.
With research sessions in the office, we found you need to schedule in 30 minutes after each session to put the note taker’s post-it notes in the right place while it’s still fresh in the mind. Another tip is to remember to bring along a large roll of paper as some experiences are very lengthy!
Bringing all the research together
We completed experience mapping with 23 adult social care colleagues and 29 residents in total.
Each council then analysed their outputs using a common approach. We started by creating skeleton maps of each journey. This reminded us of what happened in each session and allowed us to easily compare individual experiences at every stage. We then recorded our key themes from the interviews with colleagues and residents on post-it notes.
Last week we met up to compare our results. We used our skeleton maps to create overall archetypal experience maps for each council which showed the typical process. We worked in pairs which helped massively as you had another researcher who didn’t participate in the research to ask questions and assist you to create an overall experience map. Finally, each council shared the themes from their research so that we could compare our findings.
We’ll be sharing the findings from our collaboration over the next two weeks. This will include the similarities and differences between councils, in order to help understand how one council can use research from another council to improve the same statutory service.
We’ve all said we’ll use experience mapping again during future research within our respective councils. I’d highly recommend it as an approach for understanding complex council services that take place over weeks or months. It gives you a research artefact straight away, which you can use to tell the story of a user to help create empathy and understanding.