Two support workers talking with a rough sleeper.

Two support works are talking with a rough sleeper in the early hours of the morning.

During discoveries, we often spend lots of time observing people – learning how they try to achieve things and solve problems by watching them. 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. We made observations, and carried out interviews and more general discussions, during around 240 hours of research and analysis over a six week period.

We spent time hands-on with experienced outreach workers who had built up relationships with individual rough sleepers. We observed them interacting with each other during their late night and early morning shifts at six different locations around the country.

These were some of the most challenging observations we’ve ever done and none of this would have been possible without the support and guidance of the outreach workers.  So, let’s talk about what happened.

People are contradictory

What a person says they do or would often differs from what they actually do – even in fairly straightforward circumstances. That’s why observations are as important as interviews in discovery, especially in this situation where we needed to get real value out of every moment we spent out on the streets.

Here’s a great example of an interaction we observed repeatedly.

Once a rough sleeper was located, the outreach worker introduced themselves simply and directly – “Hi, I’m from the outreach team”. The outreach worker then explained that a bed may be available for the night. Many rough sleepers said they would take up the offer. However, once the the outreach worker had done their due diligence – “Is this person really a rough sleeper? What help have they had before?” –  then rung around to check availability and made a firm offer of a bed for the night, the rough sleeper would begin giving reasons why they couldn’t take it up. This was a frequently occurring behaviour and the reasons given were very similar:

“I’m not sharing a room with anyone”

“That place is terrible”

“It’s too far away from here”

“I need to wait for my friend to come back first”

“Maybe tomorrow”

We observed a number ways the rough sleeper would stop interacting with the outreach worker including packing up their things going elsewhere.

Observing the entire end to end interaction gave us insight into the whole ‘user story’. Without the whole picture we may have gone away with the impression that everyone would take up any offer of a bed. In reality, very few did.

Also, bear in mind that the relationships between outreach workers and rough sleepers were so finely balanced that we rarely, if ever, said a word during the interactions. Which leads us on to our next point.

Observation gave us access to participants who wouldn’t take part in research

Many rough sleepers won’t engage with any formal services at all, let alone volunteer to be research participants or come into a research lab to take part. By going out to the places where rough sleepers were, we were able to learn about their needs.

The majority of the rough sleepers we observed had a reasonable degree of trust in the outreach worker who approached them. This meant that our presence was endorsed – “These guys are Ok, they’re learning how we do stuff”. This allowed us to be being present to watch and listen – but not participate. No trusted outreach worker, no access to research participants.

Observing people is a privilege – do it with care

The outreach workers provided an ‘in’ to the people who were meant to benefit from the available support services. In return for this, we set out some principles.

  1. Don’t be intrusive
    We were observing outreach workers doing their job, and rough sleepers in the place they had chosen to sleep for the night. The outreach workers explained what we were doing and we stayed far enough out of the way not to make the person sleeping rough feel uncomfortable, but close enough to see and hear what was happening.
  2. Ditch the formality, be low key and casual in your approach
    Don’t frighten people into unnatural behaviour by overtly ‘studying them’. To help achieve this we didn’t have a heavy, formal consent process that might scare people. Instead we asked the outreach worker to explain to the person sleeping rough that we were there to learn about outreach, and rough sleeping, and check that it was ok for us to listen and watch. This approach worked well, no one refused to allow us to observe.
  3. Only take notes when it’s appropriate
    Many of the people we were observing were naturally wary of being approached and we didn’t want them to feel upset or concerned about what we were writing down. Nothing screams authority or, more specifically, ‘copper’ than a notebook. Additionally we didn’t write down any personal data because we didn’t have permission. It goes without saying no audio or video recording and we only took photographs that depicted a general situation and didn’t make anyone identifiable.
  4. Think about safety – yours and that of the people you’re observing
    We went out on shifts in twos and threes, and had a briefing from the outreach worker about what to do in certain situations, or if we felt uncomfortable at any point. Keeping yourself safe is really important. Keeping a genuinely vulnerable person safe even more so.
  5. Know when to stop
    On one shift, we met a rough sleeper with significant mental health issues and a severely fractured arm – the former causing him to be largely oblivious to the latter. We quickly stopped the observing and left the outreach workers to persuade the man he needed urgent medical attention.

So, what did we learn?

These were the most difficult observations we’ve done to date. In addition to the insight we gained to help identify user needs and next steps out of discovery, we refined and iterated our approach to research in sensitive and emotionally challenging situations.

This work resulted in some difficult and challenging messages for our client. It also helped us understand how to engage with people who do not, cannot or will not be research participants.

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

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