Can this be an exemplar discovery?

Stephen Hale
Definition of the word exemplar

We are sometimes asked to do discovery work designed to set the standard for work that might follow.

We might get asked a question pretty early in the process (before the work is kicked off, or even won) along the lines of: “is it possible for this to be an exemplar discovery please?”

The question typically comes from a team or individual who is committed to the idea of user research and discovery work, and is on a path towards the digital transformation of their organisation, but needs real examples to point at to demonstrate the value of the approach. 

We’re usually really pleased to get a question like this. It is an indication that the work might be somewhere near the sweet spot for a Lagom piece of work.

But the question has prompted me to think more about what that sweet spot actually is, and what we might do to plan for a piece of discovery work that is deliberately designed to be an exemplar. 

So what is the sweet spot for a Lagom piece of work? For me: 

Not all of our work fits these criteria, but these are the types of things that Lagom was set up to help with. 

Assuming the subject matter is somewhere near our sweet spot, there are then some more pragmatic, repeatable things that would need to be in place for a discovery to be an exemplar.

I’ve made some notes on the practical things I think would be needed for a piece of work exemplar-worthy:

Planning: At Lagom, we think we know what to do to deliver a service standard discovery so that by the end of 10ish weeks we can be very confident that the evidence we’ve gathered justifies any recommendations that we make about what to do next. But to be an exemplar, the planning would have to be detailed and thorough, and be designed to: 

  • quickly establish shared ways of working
  • do the initial work to fully understand the context for the discovery
  • plan the methods we’ll use to really understand user experience and needs
  • develop practical recommendations that respond directly to our findings

Service ownership: While the Lagom team is set up to provide the expert skills to deliver a discovery, an exemplar discovery project would have the client right at the centre of the team, making decisions about direction along the way. We’ve learned that when this is not the case, discoveries are liable to fail or just go nowhere, regardless of the expertise we might assemble, or the quality of the research. 

Transparency: We have found that the benefits of working as openly as possible outweigh any risks. I’ve been committed to working in the open since my first blogs for the Foreign Office in 2008. But our public sector clients are sometimes wary of the perceived risks involved. In our experience, working transparently helps with practical things like recruiting users, but it also helps focus the minds of the team involved, and it can help to get wider stakeholders bought into the process. In an exemplar discovery, we’d be talking openly about the work as we go along, not just writing up a report for publication at the end. 

Tools: We use some specialist tools in our discovery work. For example, we’d be lost without Dovetail for coding and analysis of large volumes of text.  But we are also conscious of the need to think about how our outputs will be used by our clients after the discovery team has disbanded. So an exemplar discovery would get the balance right between the best tools for doing the research, and the ongoing use of the evidence we’ve gathered after we have moved on.

User research methods: We’re confident that the methods we use to conduct our discoveries are already exemplar-worthy. We know that the expertise of our user researchers is probably the biggest reason clients choose to work with us. But we are constantly refining and continuously improving our playbook of user research methods. An exemplar discovery is a chance for us to design research methods that are the most suitable for the job, rather than just repeating something that we’ve done before.

There are probably many other things that might make a piece of work exemplar-worthy. And others in the team would probably make slightly different lists to me. But if you do want us to run an exemplar discovery, please ask the question. And you can hold me to (at least) doing the things I’ve described here.

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