The exterior of Heathrow Airport Terminal 3 where many people sleep rough in the waiting areas.

Heathrow Airport Terminal 3 where many people sleep rough every night.

We recently ran a discovery for the Ministry for Communities, Housing and Local Government (MHCLG) to explore how support services locate and support rough sleepers. During the six week discovery, we spent over 240 hours with:

  • charities that fund and organise support services
  • support workers on their late night and early morning shifts
  • rough sleepers themselves
  • former rough sleepers in hostels and similar accommodation
  • the organisation the manages a current rough sleeper location and alerting application

The challenges of engagement, methods of interacting and gathering evidence were quite different to work we’ve done before. You can read more about how we worked on this discovery in Nat’s blog ‘Observing user behaviour in difficult circumstances’.This discovery really reinforced the message that if you’re a user researcher, or a member of a service delivery team, you must forget the idea that you can contribute your experiences or knowledge to any understanding of your users.

Leisa Reichelt (@leisa) summed this up well.

“You are not your user and you cannot think like a user unless you’re meeting users regularly.”

We’d like to iterate that spot-on insight based on what we learned during this discovery. We’re sure there are more examples – we say unequivocally that unless you’re sleeping rough, which is not the same as being homeless, there is no way you can think like a person who’s in that situation.

We think that the statement that describes this piece of research is:

“You are not your user and you cannot begin to describe the reasoning and decisions of your users unless you spend time with them. Lots of time. Often.”

But what about empathy?

We decided after a couple of shifts with outreach workers that empathy was redundant on this piece of work. Not because we’re hard nosed or mean, but because it quickly became clear that the reasoning and decisions of the rough sleepers we were meeting via the outreach workers were unique to their personal situation.

In future, we’ll question the role of empathy in user research we do and whether adopting a position of empathy is a help or a hindrance in any given situation.

Here’s a good example.

If you’d been rough sleeping and managed to get your own flat. A modest flat, but clean and safe with all the amenities you need, why would you still sleep rough? The flat’s there, you’ve got the key, it’s yours. Yet you’re sleeping rough in a Manchester theatre doorway. Why? Makes no sense does it? Similarly, how many people do you think sleep rough in Heathrow Terminal 3? None? A couple? The outreach work I joined met half a dozen regulars on one shift and two or three new faces. Why would you make an airport terminal your home when you’ve been offered other accommodation?

In Manchester, the outreach worker explained a recent exchange which sums up the disconnect.

Outreach worker “I can get you a bed for the night.”

Rough sleeper “I’m OK, thanks”

Police officer “Come on, if I were you…”

These examples show where the thinking and understanding of one person disconnects from another’s. In the example above, the Police officer’s advice seems logical if you’re not a rough sleeper, but had little or no credibility with an actual rough sleeper. And not just because it was a Police officer dishing out the advice. The outreach worker completely understood both sides of the conversation but also knew that any exchange that included expressions like “If I were you…” would be ignored.

Presenting our findings

We had a very slight edge – no one had looked at the end to end journey before and because we’d put in so many hours ‘on the job’ we had solid and credible material to present back at each of the three show and tells. Over the six weeks, we built up a complete picture of what happened across the services, who did what, when and why along with what which needs were being met, missed or misinterpreted. We pretty much ignored the existing services until we had an objective set of user needs.

Our research allowed the Rough Sleeper Team at MHCLG to have much more meaningful conversations with all of the organisations that contributed to the end to end service. Some of those discussions would definitely have been difficult and challenging but as each was based on previously unavailable evidence, we hope our work supported some of the decisions that had to be made to use outreach workers’ time more effectively.

We’ve only talked about the rough sleeper’s experience in the existing service. There are other groups that we’ll write about in separate posts.

If you’d like to talk to us about this piece of work, or any other aspect of user research, get in touch.

Inquireworks on Twitter

2 months ago
Looking a back over the Discovery we did for DfE and thinking it was a fascinating piece of work and turned out be very much a rehearsal for working remotely.
4 months ago
Beginning a fascinating and very different piece of Discovery User Research for the Department for Education today. More on this later.