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Kat Sexton
Digital Services Architect


Best start in design thinking

In January I wrote a blog post about Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s Best Start in Life programme.

We were just starting out then, gathering data and evidence to create a strategy to improve lives for children under 5.  The strategy will be publicly available soon.

This post is a reflection on the user research work we did earlier this year, researching with parents, carers and professionals working with children and families.  It is important that the Best Start in Life strategy tackles areas that are important for families living in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. 

In 2 focused weeks we learnt what makes a space and environment attractive to families, by immersing ourselves in context. We visited 18 locations and spoke to parents and professionals about their experiences – what is important to them and their families, what they find hard, where they have needed support and what they did in those times. 

We learned so much that influenced the development of the strategy – and will continue to influence new initiatives and projects.

This blog post is dedicated to our research team and to everyone we saw and spoke to in those short weeks in January and February.  Thank you for your time, your generosity, openness and honesty.  We owe it to you to ensure that we use what we learned in the best possible way, to influence the future design of services and provision in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. 

We also want to make sure that we learn from that first phase of research and that we improve our craft and learn ready for our next phase of research, which will take place over the summer.

I’ve gathered most of the material for this post from our research reflection session (we call this a retrospective), which looked back and reflected on 2 sprints of user research.  Here’s some insight into what worked and what didn’t…

What worked

1) Service specialists as researchers 

We invited members of The Best Start in Life service teams to form part of the research group. 

We recruited volunteers from the children’s teams and gave them some training, support and crib sheets. My ask of them was great – step outside your day job and go into different places and situations with un-biased curiosity and empathy.  Remove pre-conceived ideas and open your mind, heart and soul to what you notice and what people tell you about their lives. See the world through their eyes. 

Their contribution was great – they embraced the challenge and valued the opportunity to find out about people’s experiences through a different, holistic perspective. This challenged their thinking and enabled them to reflect about how their own services worked within the wider system.

2) Planning in Trello 

We think Trello is a great tool for planning. It’s highly collaborative, accessible, easy to use and can be updated in real time.

Our (work in progress) Trello board for this project is publicly accessible here.

3) Time-boxed sprints 

We had a very short period of time to cover a lot of ground, so we decided to work in time-boxed sprints to keep on track.  It broadly worked like this:

Week 1: Research training, planning and recruitment

Week 2: User research sprint

Week 3: Research feedback and planning

Week 4: User research sprint

Week 5: Research feedback session and output creation

Working in ‘sprints’ focused the mind, and helped us achieve a lot in very short timescales, giving the work pace and energy.

4) Forward planning and research methods

We made sure meetings and sharing sessions were booked in well in advance so we could make sure everyone could attend and had good rooms prepared with space and walls for lots of post-its.

We decided to use two of the IDEO user research methods  – immerse in context and contextual interviews. 

Immersing ourselves in context in the first sprint worked really well.  Researchers really bedded in their skills by going out to learn about families and built their confidence for the following interview sprint.  

5) Recruiting user research participants

This was refreshingly easy for this project – parents were warm, open and giving with their time.  We used existing networks to recruit, as well as social media. 

Our key learning point about recruiting on Facebook was that we got a great response when we posted on local Facebook groups using our personal Facebook accounts. 

We explained clearly that we work for the council, but the post was from a person with a face, not an organisation and a logo.  (Attempts to recruit from the council’s social media account caused nothing but a tumbleweed).

Loads of people readily replied and were keen to give up their time to talk to us about their experiences. 

Stuff that could have gone better:

1) Short sprints were crazy stressful 

Working in short sprints was great for pace, but not so good for the mental health of our researchers! 

Some found it hard to squeeze in all of the interviews they had lined up which meant they tried to do a lot in one day.

We also underestimated how emotionally invested we would feel listening to the stories of our participants. If we did this again, we’d make sure we planned some emotional support for our own team, to make sure people were prepared for what they might hear, as well as support to talk things through afterwards. 

2) Overambitious

The research team went out and covered a lot of ground over each week.  At each sharing session, we had lots and lots of stories to hear. 

We didn’t actually get to everyone’s stories during the sessions as there just wasn’t time. 

We need to re-think how many research stories we can realistically listen to in one session, so that we get the very best from the valuable research that has been done.

3) Wide scope 

This was helpful in a way, as we could be led by what our research participants wanted to talk to us about. We made sure we didn’t lead the conversations away from what was important to them. 

But… this meant that we had lots of varied stories and experiences to learn and gain insights from, which was challenging. 

This also limited our ability to start to think creatively about how we might start to solve the problems as there were just so many!

As we move into the delivery phase of the strategy later this year, it will be easier to research more specific areas so that we can delve deeper and create better, more specific, insights. 

4) Thank the people!

We were amazed by the engagement we got from the people and places we visited, all over the county.  

During our reflections at the retrospective, the whole team spoke energetically about how incredible each and every person was for giving up their time to tell us their stories – some of which were very personal. 

Everyone who spoke to us gave us a little bit of themselves and gave us insight into their world so that they might help us actively work to improve the lives of young children in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.  We wanted to make sure that we make a point of thanking the people who took part and show them what we have done with their stories so far and how we might use the insight to make things better.

What we have achieved so far

To all of you amazing people out there who met with one of us earlier this year, thank you for your time, your enthusiasm and for sharing your stories with us.  This is the impact you’ve made… so far:

1) Your stories have been shared with some of the most senior people working in the NHS, public health and children’s services.  

2) Your stories have helped shape the Best Start in Life joint strategy that is being finalised at the moment. 

This strategy will be the foundation of future action that will take place for the next few years to help improve outcomes for children from pre-birth to age 5 in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

3) The insights created by our research is now publicly available for other authorities to learn from when designing new services.

What’s next?                         

The strategy is in the process of being finalised.  There will be lots of work aligning the different organisations involved to create “one voice” in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. 

We are planning a phase 2 of user research and taking everything we learned in phase 1 with us.  We plan to conduct 2 more sprints of research in the summer months (although this time we will give researchers a bit more time!)

At the moment, we are mapping services and impacts based on what we know from professionals working in our teams, evidence, data and research.  What can’t be underestimated is the complexity and ambition of this initiative, strategy and programme of work. 

Children are raised by families navigating a complex system of services provided by health organisations, local government, voluntary and community provision.  It will take a lot of time, energy and commitment from all of the organisations and residents involved to make real change possible.  We are striving to be bold in our approach, relentlessly striving for innovation that will drive radical improvements in outcomes for the youngest people in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Research outputs have been published on the alpha Local Gov User Research Library

To find out more about the Best Start in Life project, or to get involved, please email Kat.

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