feet walking up steps

4 insights from working with ‘experts by experience’

By Tris Lumley 5 April 2018 4 minute read

At NPC we’ve been thinking for a while about how charities can get better at ensuring their end users to have more of a role in informing, designing and delivering their work. But we also know there are real challenges involved. In short, it’s easier said than done.

So we decided to have a go at doing.

What we did

My best life is the result of our work in partnership with Camden-based young people experiencing multiple disadvantage. Using experience-mapping techniques inspired by the tech sector we sought to understand the difficulty young people may face accessing the services they need, and where technology might be able to help.

The map captures their experiences progressing towards what they called their ‘best life’.

The original experience map developed during the workshops in Camden


How we did it

Camden Young People’s Foundation were able to connect us with young people young people, who were involved in the work in the following ways;

  • a steering group of young people who shaped the direction of the research;
  • a series of group consultation workshops where the young people developed and iterated the early versions of the outputs;
  • a fact-checking workshop to make sure the young people felt what we had captured was accurate and consistent.

We also worked in partnership with Revolving Doors, who have experience in developing user-led research, and helped to shape and facilitate the workshops.

During this process we learned a lot, and wanted to share some of the insights.

What we learned

Individuals need the right opportunity to apply their expertise

A lot of our work went into making sure sessions were set up and run so that the young people felt comfortable, engaged, and involved.

This is the heart of user-led experience mapping. The young people led the initial discussions about what the user experience map would look like. They conceptualised the ladders leading towards the life they want to live, and the ‘snakes’ as the challenges they faced, which became core to the structure of the work. It was they who stressed that before even considering using services they need some initial stages of basic support—footholds and gatekeepers.

We received high quality meaningful information and feedback from the young people we worked with, and I think this was in part because young people really felt they were shaping the project.

Getting the practicalities right is key to engagement

One of the most common concerns we hear about working with users and research is whether they want to take part. We didn’t find this. There was real enthusiasm in the young people at our workshops. They were happy to think about problems, engage in debate and discussion, and contribute to creating an outcome.

There were some things we did that I think contributed to this:

  • A sense of purpose: We were really clear on what the work was for, which I think gave people a sense of purpose and kept them engaged.
  • Short and sharp sessions: Based on the advice of Revolving Doors we also kept the sessions fairly short. We found this helped keep everyone’s energy and focus up.
  • Breathing space: We ran quarter-day workshops spread out over months, meaning we had enough time to tweak—even change completely—what we were covering in the workshops. When certain information came to light—for example, the importance of initial footholds on their journey—we redesigned one of the later steering groups to unpack that. I don’t think this depth of insight would have happened with one or two day-long workshops.
  • Location: Again, on the advice of Revolving Doors, we picked venues that were local and where participants felt comfortable—such as youth centres—to help make the process less unfamiliar or intimidating. And we learned from experience that if your venue isn’t easy to find then your workshop will start very late, or may not even start at all.
  • Facilitation: Another way of making the space feel collaborative, non-hierarchical, and unintimidating was about the right facilitation. This was as simple as making sure researchers are spread out around the space instead of clustered together in cliques, or avoiding language that sounds too formal or clinical.

Seeing immediate results helps people stay motivated

Initial engagement with the work was quite high, attendance of the steering group dropped over time, and we struggled to get repeat attendance to the workshops.

The young people themselves told us that they engage much more with those services where they could see small positive steps forward each time they used it, instead of just focusing on some big distant outcome.

We think we should have provided more immediate outcomes from the work, instead of focusing on a final finished report weeks or months down the line.

In future, we would think about how to split our outputs into smaller parts to demonstrate the value of the ongoing work.

This was our first hands-on foray into experience mapping. We learned lots, and we still have more to learn.

We do think the sort of techniques have the potential to transform the relationship that charities have with service users, and to better inform the design of their services. So we look forward to developing our thinking more and building on this in future projects.

If you have insights from your own experiences of research where you partnered with service users we would love to hear them. Get in touch at @NPCthinks or info@thinkNPC.org

Take a look at the research 

Download our guide to experience mapping