5 interview tips, not from a user researcher

Even if it’s not your official job title, most of us will (should!) find ourselves carrying out some user research throughout a piece of work.

Having recently ran a round of interviews with service users and being far from an expert in the field, I thought it would be worth sharing some tips on the technique I learnt along the way.

Know what you want to know

As you’ve chosen to carry out interviews, you hopefully have an idea of what information you want to get from your participant. I found it useful to highlight what I wanted to know  and then prepare some questions that would lead to the right answers with the right level of detail.

If the topic is particularly challenging or difficult, you might want to write these questions in a variety of different styles. This may help you get answers, whilst taking into account the mood of the conversation and feelings of the participant.

Hit record

Writing or typing notes can really disrupt the flow of an interview. What’s worse is trying to take notes and listen to the participant at the same time, especially if you’re like me and useless at multitasking.

I found recording the interviews to be a massive help. It meant I could fully focus on the participant and then write up my notes afterwards. It also surprised me to hear little details I failed to pick up on until I listened back to the interview.

Here are some bonus tips on recording interviews:

  • No special equipment needed. Most smartphones should do the trick
  • Be upfront. Ask permission and explain your reasons at the start
  • Face the phone down. Calls and notifications can distract you and the participant
  • Start off easy. A few opening questions at the start can put the participant at ease. They often quickly forget you’re even recording

Let it flow

To improve the flow of the interview, slot your questions into the conversation rather than making it apparent you are reading off a set list. This is made easier by carefully preparing the order of your questions so they naturally flow from one topic to another.

Don’t interrupt

This is short and sweet, don’t interrupt your participant. You’re there to hear what they have to say, so ensure they have finished speaking before moving onto the next question.

The post interview chat

I’m proud of this one. Over the course of the interviews, I very quickly learnt to never stop recording until the the participants had left the table/room. Quite often, the most useful information and unexpected answers came while chatting after the more ‘formal’ interview questioning had finished.

Forget it’s even an interview

All of these tips should work towards making sure your participant feels comfortable with you and relaxed with the questioning. To get the most detailed and honest answers, you want your participant to forget they are even being interviewed.

By doing this, you’ve got the answers you want, useful information you weren’t expecting and importantly, built a positive relationship with someone who can hopefully help again further along the process.



Transformation Beyond Digital

This morning I attended the Transformation Beyond Digital session hosted by Shaping Cloud to learn from other Local Authorities about what transformation means to them. Not only did I get to hang out in Microsoft’s very swanky offices, but I walked away with some valuable lessons we can apply to our work at Bucks.

Start with policy; Deliver with digital; Design with data

Geoff Connell, CIO of Norfolk County Council and President of Socitm led an interesting first session on why digital is about so much more than IT.

We are all aware of the pressures local government is currently facing; meeting increasing demand with depleting budgets. For years, I.T. has been used to automate functions and optimise existing processes. However, the budgets no longer exist to enable us to continue working in the way we have been for years gone by. The only way we will meet the increase in demands with decreased resources is if we completely transform the way we work.

Transformation cannot be led by an IT or Digital team working in isolation. It is our job to work with officers, Members, customer service agents and help them to understand the importance of their expertise and the power of combining that with digital tools. Digital tools alone won’t change the world, but used by the right people in the right way they might certainly help.

Connell spoke of success in transformation in a previous role at the London Boroughs of Newham and Havering. At Newham, they started with policy change to drive a movement towards people becoming more independent and resilient. Digital tools were used to provide the platform on which this could occur. But it was data from analytics and case work that enabled them to find the biggest opportunities and target customers. To put it another way, start with the desired outcome (the policy), then use your tools and data to find a new way to meet that outcome.

We cannot work in isolation if we want to effect change. Diverse, multi-disciplined teams are better at problem solving as each person brings with them their own experience and expertise. At Bucks we have an incredible wealth of talent and complementary skills. When we bring those together in the right way, we will be able to find brand new solutions to old problems enabling true transformation. The bread and butter work of automating and optimising services is still needed and will continue, but it is no longer enough to ensure we meet the future demands on the Council.

Transformation needs context

In the first session above, we spoke about the national context of local government and the key pressures we are all facing. As Mike Ibbitson from London Borough of Ealing took to the podium he took this and emphasised the importance of local context.

Within our Councils, or even our business units, we face different pressures and work in different environments: changing demographics; national infrastructure projects; third sector support services; customer satisfaction. The context this provides is integral to ensuring our services are meeting the needs of our residents.

Ibbitson shared a quote from one of his residents who said they like their GP because they know there is more than one way to treat a patient. We need to use that mindset in our roles too – there is more than one was to deliver a service, to meet our resident’s needs, to fulfill our statutory duties. We need to keep the context of Buckinghamshire and its residents at the forefront of our minds while we look to new opportunities for transformation.

Digital fluency and innovative capacity

Traditionally, the role of the IT team was to support the IT infrastructure in an organisation. As more and more people in the workplace become digital natives and increasing numbers of millenials join our workforce, many people will be able to self serve. However, we need to make sure we promote digital fluency across the council and not limit it to those who got there on their own.

At Ealing they have tackled this by replacing the IT Service Desk with a Digital Skills Centre based in the office case. They encourage colleagues to drop in with any questions they have about a work or personal device. It is a centre to share advice and skills, no longer a service desk meant to respond to single isolated errors.

I would like to think that our colleagues in Bucks find the IT and Digital teams approachable enough to come to us with any questions but I’m sure there is more we could be doing to encourage digital fluency across the council. If you have any ideas or suggestions please do get in touch!

In addition to spreading digital fluency, we need to ensure we are combining trust in our work with capacity to innovate. The day to day tasks do need to continue but we need to allow our staff enough space to think creatively and explore opportunities outside of their comfortable remit. Trusting people with the space to think will allow them to find the ways we can transform our services.


Industrial Revolution 4.0

Derrick McCourt, Public Sector General Manager at Microsoft, started his talk looking at the industrial revolutions gone by and what the Fourth Industrial Revolution really means (first was water and steam power, the second electricity and mass production, the third computers and automation).

Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum says the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterised by

“a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

and we are in the middle of it right now. This is evident in the increasing use of augmented reality and health apps available to all.

However, this means more than simply having some cool new 3d printed tools. It is changing our world in so many ways. Uber is the world’s biggest taxi company and yet doesn’t own a single vehicle or employ a single taxi driver. Where the typical Fortune 500 company took 20 years to be valued at $1bn, Snapchat only took 2.  The future isn’t mobile technology – that is now. We are living it. The future is something that none of us can comprehend as yet.

In many areas we are still catching up. We need to stop planning for a mobile world and realise it is here. Our services should be ready for the world our customers and residents are already living in not planning to get there in a couple of years!

4 easy steps to Transformation

McCourt broke down Transformation into 4 key areas:

  1. Engage your citizens
  2. Empower your employees
  3. Optimise your organisation
  4. Transform your services

As always, our citizens and customers are the most important. Some of our citizens don’t choose to engage with us, they have to because we are a statutory body. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do all that we can to make sure their experience with us is as good as it can possibly be.

The only way we can do that is if we understand our citizens and engage their interest. However, making a great looking entry point to a service is meaningless if the back end processes cannot meet the customer’s needs. This is where we need to empower our employees and optimise our processes. It is only when we look at these three things together that we will be able to transform our services.


Work shadowing – Digital HQ

By Nicola Johnstone, Family Information Assistant, Buckinghamshire Family Information Service

Last Friday I had the pleasure of spending a day in Digital HQ. I was there to work shadow Becki Boraston, a Digital Content Officer to find out what they are doing in Digital Comms and to gain new skills to develop my current role as a Family Information Assistant for the Buckinghamshire Family Information Service.

Becki’s role is to improve and maintain the Buckscc website.  Her job is to look at the website from the user’s point of view, follow their journey and ensure the user gets the information they require and has the best possible experience.  It was evident that like all successful projects a lot of planning goes into each page before they even start to think about how to build it to the finished polished usable product.

Becki and I discussed some of their current projects, Maintain My Street, Find My Child a School Place, Waste Permits (who knew there were so many types of waste permit!).  She showed me in detail how they use Firmstep, which we also use but it was interesting to see what can be done in the ‘back end’ of the system.

Whilst I was there I also had the opportunity of meeting Liam who is currently working on a paperless post room, Cameron who works  on the e-commerce side and Sarah who is currently working on libraries, who all kindly took time to talk to me about what they do and the goals they are working to.

I found my day really interesting and informative, I thank the team for allowing me to sit with them for the day.

I’ll bring cakes next time!!