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We're building a GOV.UK user research panel

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We’ve been working on a project to build a user research panel for the GOV.UK user research team. We’ve now signed contracts, kicked off the project and we’re well down the road in terms of infosec, content, design and development.

We’re going agile in developing the panel. No surprises there. We’ll launch a very simple version of the panel by the end of July 2016, and develop it further as we learn what works, what doesn’t, and what panelists and researchers need.

In this post I’ll tell you more about what we’re building, and, if you’re a user researcher working in government, why it may be of interest to you.

What’s a user research panel?

In short, it’s a database of people who’ve volunteered to share their details – such as name, contact details and basic demographic information – so they can be invited to participate in user research sessions appropriate to them.

Why we’re building a user research panel

We’re building a panel to give us a new way to recruit participants for GOV.UK user research.

We expect the panel will help us recruit both general GOV.UK users, and people visiting specific pages on GOV.UK – something external recruiters can’t do for us.

We think we’ll get participants that better match the criteria we want, and perhaps that we’ll be more cost efficient too.

The panel won’t mean the end of our relationship with external recruiters. We'll still use them for specific demographics and for large-scale research projects.

A quick overview of the mechanics

We’re working with Squiz to customise an instance of SugarCRM Enterprise, build a panel sign-up form, and build a landing page for follow up surveys. The sign-up form and follow up surveys will be hosted on GOV.UK subdomains.

People will be invited to join the panel via selected GOV.UK pages, feedback forms and social media. Once panelists have completed the sign-up process, including a double-opt in, their details will be securely stored in SugarCRM.

SugarCRM is a customer relationship management tool. It’ll allow GOV.UK researchers to search the database for panelists specific to their needs – such as people under 25 who live in a rural area – invite them to research, and easily manage and track all communications with them.

We’ll be able to use SugarCRM to generate and send follow up surveys to specific groups of panelists. For instance, we might want to learn more about panelists who’ve said they’re over 65 so that we can recruit more specifically. Are they working full time or part-time, or are they retired? Do they have caring responsibilities?

Many teams use a survey tool and spreadsheet: why we’re going bigger

Many user research teams use a survey tool, like SurveyMonkey, and an Excel spreadsheet to run a user research panel. This works on a limited scale, but most teams find that as their panel grows it becomes difficult and time consuming to track panelist communications, particularly across team members.

More importantly, because we’ll be collecting personal information (and possibly sensitive-personal information), our user research panel must meet Cabinet Office information security standards.

To meet these needs, our panel has been designed with security in mind. It’s being hosted on secure data servers in the UK, and the technical support team is based in the UK and have appropriate security clearances.

Why this work could be relevant to you

GDS will own the intellectual property (IP) for the panel and all the customisations. And we’ve contracted the project so that other government departments can license an instance of our solution with SugarCRM.

It won’t be quite out-the-box – you’ll need to do your own work around hosting and infosec – but all the development and user research groundwork will have been done for you.

All being well, and by the end of this year, we hope user research teams across government will be able to license and implement the GOV.UK panel for their own use. We can’t make promises quite yet, but watch this space.

If you’d like more information about this project, email Kate at

Keep in touch. Sign up to email updates from this blog. Follow Kate on Twitter.

Featured image by Ingo Joseph, People walking crowd, Public Domain Dedication (CC0 1.0)

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  1. Comment by Mark Hulett posted on

    Great to see that you have progressed with this, interesting. We have a 3000 strong user panel and I think we would find the CRM type function useful.
    In the last two GDS assessments, we had feedback that relying too much on the user panel (engaged users) and not seeking out "new" users (less engaged) was a bad thing. Did this come up in your work on this and if so how do you intend to deal with it.

    Also, will you be paying an incentive and how will you do this? Will you pay recruits direct?

    • Replies to Mark Hulett>

      Comment by Kate Towsey posted on

      Hi Mark,

      Yes, great to be getting there.

      On the first question: we're expecting that the panel will become a pool for engaged users and won't be appropriate for all research situations. We'll still use external recruiters so that we meet new users too, and when that's important. It's something we've spoken a fair bit about in developing the panel. Panel diversity is going to be something interesting to track too.

      We won't give panelists an incentive unless they participate in research. Usually we only give incentives for face-to-face sessions and we give them in the form of vouchers.

  2. Comment by Adam Londero posted on

    Out of curiosity - what was your reasoning for choosing SugarCRM? With GDS' principles in promoting open source software, I would have expected you to have considered open source alternatives, or at least taken advantage of cloud SaaS offerings.

    • Replies to Adam Londero>

      Comment by Kate Towsey posted on

      Hello Adam,

      It's a good question and one we considered carefully. We looked at various open source options including SugarCRM Community Edition, Odoo, SuiteCRM and others. For various reasons, including information security, response time and communication style, we didn't find a purely open source CRM/supplier who could meet our needs. In working with SugarCRM and Squiz, we feel we've gained the best of both worlds. SugarCRM Enterprise (delivered by Squiz) is well supported, meets all our infosec needs, is being developed in an agile way as we learn what we need, and, as we own the IP on any customisations, we'll be able to offer the GOV.UK panel to other government departments (and governments) to license as a complete solution with SugarCRM. For a fully supported and highly-secure service, the price point was good by comparison too. Last but not least, from day one, our communication with Squiz and SugarCRM has been excellent - essential to the success of any project.

  3. Comment by Robert Daoust posted on

    Hi, we're looking for a provider of Quantitative panels for our user research at Pensionwise. They should be able to supply us with users within a specific age range and have knowledge or interest in our topic. I've looked at the User Research Suppliers spreadsheet and have found it impenetrable. Can anyone suggest a route to go down with this?

    • Replies to Robert Daoust>

      Comment by Kate Towsey posted on

      Hi Robert, Commercial recruiters is not something I'm working on, so I couldn't give you good advice. It would be best to email the cross-government user research email list. You're going to get a much broader response there. Email me if you don't know how to do that:

  4. Comment by Maike posted on

    Hi, I am wondering how to panel is doing now. Did it succeed? And what did you learn setting it up?

    • Replies to Maike>

      Comment by Aoife Corbett posted on

      I'd also like to know this 🙂