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The Challenge

The Government Digital Service (GDS) is part of the Cabinet Office. Their key initiative is to help departments work together and to meet user needs, by supporting the ongoing transformation of government and improving the improving the use of data.

A big part of meeting user needs is to carry out research on those users - to ensure that a service is actually solving the problem it originally set out to, and is using language appropriate to that goal.

Finding research participants normally takes place using recruiters, but it isn’t possible to ask a recruiter to find 5 people that have engaged with a piece of content on the GOV.UK website. What GDS needed was a way to keep track of people who’ve used the GOV.UK website, and to invite them in for research - a “user research panel”.

Many user research teams have this same need, and have found that common solutions (using spreadsheets or commercial survey tools) are not compliant with the information security requirements of government, or the Data Protection Act.


GDS went out to tender for a partner to build a user research panel which could be used by them, and then shared across other government agencies.

A list of user needs was released to 5 shortlisted companies. GDS did not provide a requirements document as they wanted to assess the supplier’s capability to work in an agile way.

Squiz’ understanding of the user needs document worked well in their favour, in addition to the solution being cheaper year-on-year than alternatives. It was also a solution based upon commercial open source technologies meaning it would be easy for GDS to get their data out at any point. GDS and Squiz kicked off the project by meeting up for a discovery day, where they collaborated to define a backlog, and agree what needed to be in the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

SugarCRM was used as the platform for the user research panel, as its flexibility and ease of use was found to significantly reduce the time to build something tangible. The teams used an agile approach, starting with the basics and a lightly configured system so GDS could learn and make informed decisions for developments going forward.

The results

The new user research solution allows activities that simply couldn’t be done before. GDS can now identify the best possible research candidates not only by demographics, but by the actual content they connected with. In addition, they can audit communications to see who has participated in screeners and research to highlight good candidates for further research.

The agile approach enabled GDS to start by spending small, which meant there was some budget to continue building and improving throughout the year.

As at February 2019, 48,000 unique users had signed up to join the research panel. This means GDS can now action more recruitment requests in-house rather than go to an external agency.

In January 2019, the team passed a major milestone by fulfilling more than 50% of all recruitment requests by finding people on their own database.

This positive trend has continued through 2019 with 66% of requests in April being fulfilled.

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