User testing: creating our own user panel

An empty user testing lab

I’m Narelle Ong and I’m the User Researcher in the Service Design team. It’s my job to help the whole service design team to understand the needs of our users, ensure we have these at the heart of our work, and that everything we build is robustly tested with them. In this post I’ll tell you about developing a pool of testers to support the work of the team.

Getting in front of users – the challenge

We need to regularly test with users, so that what we build reflects user needs and not our own assumptions of what these are. Recruiting people to test our work with can be difficult. In a perfect world we’d have a panel of willing subjects, from all the different target audiences, neatly segmented and ready to talk to. We wondered: would it be possible to develop such a panel of testers?

Creating a panel

We thought about how we might develop such a panel: this included exploring what other government organisations have done and our own needs, resources and capabilities.

We decided to first draw on our networks to help us- we are a large organisation so it made sense to use the networks we have. We emailed key networks with a short explanatory text and a link to how people could sign up, and asked them to share as widely as they could.

Segmenting the panel

We captured key demographics about those signing up – such as their age, their use of Essex County Council (ECC) services and whether they have ever worked for ECC. This helped us track how representative our database was, and will help us target testing to specific audiences where needed (for example, ‘library users’). We kept our sign-up messages short and simple, and gave people options as to what types of research and testing they would like to support us with.

Who we contacted

Here's how we targeted specific groups, and got a sense of who we could speak to:

Network type Examples
Team networks Family and friends, friends of friends etc.
ECC networks ECC social media, ECC “Keep me Posted” subscribers, library service newsletters,
County networks Community Voluntary Services, Parish Councils, Youth services, carer groups and networks, community groups and Business groups.

Using the panel

We test our material in many different ways. This may range from someone completing a short online survey, to coming in to County Hall for a morning to test a series of prototypes. So far we have used our panel for both.
We recognise that people are being generous with their time, and it’s important that people understand how their participation is helping us and will benefit them. That’s why this week we’ll send out the first in a regular series of emails to our testers, detailing what we’ve learnt based on what they have told us and what we’ve done as a result.

Where we are now

We have a database of more than 100 people, who have supported 3 rounds of testing: we want this to grow to around 500 people. We plan to keep the network active for at least 12 months. We also know we have some gaps in our panel - over two-thirds of our panel are aged 50 years and over and none are aged under 25.

We are exploring other recruitment methods to address these gaps, such as targeted recruitment at specific venues, and drawing on lists of specific user groups. We will also work with a specialist to test with those with specific sensory conditions, to ensure what we develop is accessible for all. The panel is a work in progress, but it is already helping us to test our work more quickly and effectively.

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  1. Comment by Aimee posted on

    These pages are really helpful - thank you for sharing.

    With regards to gaps in testing, ECC does have a number of different forums including the Young People and Apprentice Network (ages 16-24) which may be worth looking into:

    You may already be aware of this and I appreciate they will be employees but they may have links to other groups outside of ECC too.

  2. Comment by Alison Davies posted on

    Really interesting read ... we've worked hard at ONS to build up our own base of participants for research so good to hear how others are doing this.

    Looking forward to catching up with you later in the week 😁


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