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User research is key to Government Digital Service assessments

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This, part 1 of 2 blog posts, aims to provide a deeper understanding of Government Digital Service (GDS) assessments and the vital role of user research. In part 2, we will offer tips and recommendations for passing your GDS assessment, based on our experience of supporting hundreds of projects through the process. 

User research is often undervalued and considered a necessary but tedious step. Stakeholders worry that they will find out that their ideas will not meet the needs of their audiences, or that they will, expensively, learn what they already knew about their audiences by gutfeel.  

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These are dangerous assumptions. Thorough user research can save money and lead to quicker and more successful outcomes. Neglecting it can certainly result in costly mistakes, like failed services that don’t meet user needs or the wrong technical solution which costs more to fix than it did to procure.

The GDS assessment and the user research required within it is the gold-standard that should give all stakeholders confidence that the services you are intending to invest public money in will deliver the outcomes intended. 

What does GDS do?

GDS ensures the delivery of platforms, products and services that help the government to become joined-up, trusted and responsive to user needs. To achieve this goal, GDS follows design principles that set the gold standard for ensuring user needs are at the heart of every design and development decision. The result is a better user experience and greater inclusivity. 

“Government Digital Service (GDS) builds platforms, products and services that help deliver a simple, joined-up and personalised experience of government to everyone.” 

What are GDS Service standards and assessments?

The GDS Service Standards cover areas such as user needs, design, technology, and testing and are designed to ensure that government digital services are accessible, user-centered, reliable, and secure.

Good user researchers offer strategic insight and will help you to understand the problems that the data reveals, so that you can make decisions based on facts and evidence. The goal should be to help users achieve the right outcome for themselves and services designed around their needs are more likely to be used.  

Demand for user research has increased in recent years. We think the requirement to pass GDS assessment has played a role in this, along with an emphasis on inclusivity and accessibility, and the need to increase digital uptake and engagement.  

What are the stages of a GDS assessment?

A GDS assessment mirrors the Alpha, Private Beta, and Public Beta phases of an agile project lifecycle for any government public-facing service. The assessment ensures that your service meets the Government Digital Standards, ensuring that all users can access and use the service simply and easily. 


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How long does a GDS assessment last?

A GDS assessment usually takes four hours and follows an assessment agenda. Some assessments are more structured, while others are flexible.  

Who is on the assessor panel?

The panel comprises of four to five assessors who are specialists in their field. It may include researchers, designers and technical leads with experience of working on government projects.  

What does the assessment involve?

During the assessment, the project team will provide an overview of the service through a presentation that introduces the problem being addressed, showcases the users and their goals, and demonstrates the service. After this, there will be a dedicated session for the User Research section, which typically lasts around an hour and includes questions from the assessor.

We have gained valuable insights from participating in and contributing to many successful GDS assessments. While these assessments can seem intimidating, they don't have to be. If you are familiar with the service standards being assessed and have prepared a slide deck that aligns with those standards, you will be well-equipped to handle the assessment. Assessors are not looking to trip you up but rather to see your excellent work and ensure that user research is given the appropriate priority. 

Meeting the Service Standards

According to Public Technology research, more than one in six services do not meet the GDS Service Standards with the largest number of failures in this research being caused by a lack of understanding of user needs: 

  • ‘Understanding user needs’  
  • ‘Creating a simple and intuitive service’
  • ‘Improving the service based on user research and usability testing’

These 14 service standards are evaluated. The first five of these standards are directly related to User Research, and a further three are related to the outcomes from user research.

Put simply, if user research is neglected, not given sufficient priority, or treated as an afterthought, it is likely that the project will struggle to meet the standards and pass the assessment. 

Why are GDS assessments critical?

To summarise, GDS assessments are crucial because they ensure that government services can be accessed and used by everyone in the most effective way possible. The Service Standards guide us in achieving this goal. By placing users at the centre of the design process and understanding their needs, we can improve their experience, and therefore the efficiency and effectiveness of the service.

However, it is sometimes unclear how to meet GDS expectations while conducting user research. In the next blog post, we will share tips for a successful assessment and offer suggestions for preparing for one, including the ideal make-up of project teams and the various skills and roles needed to deliver valuable and usable services. 

If you are facing a GDS assessment in the future and need support with user research, please get in touch with us to discuss the opportunity to collaborate.