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Why you should bother with user research for procurement reforms

5 Dec 2019

By Kaye Sklar

Foto: The OCLift teams doing user research using Mexico City’s bike share system.

I don’t like the term user research. ‘User research’ sounds like a formal and boring activity that may require earning a PhD, and that will result in a thick report that gathers dust on a bookshelf. This is a huge pity. User research is very important and interesting, anyone can do it, and the insights from user research are key for successful reform projects. 

For example, the City of Philadelphia wanted to use contracting to improve the quality of food that is delivered by the city to children and other people who rely on the government for meals. So the city engaged the community through user research. By interviewing food recipients, kitchen workers and vendors, the city identified the pain points in their procurement process and could better articulate reform goals. 

User research is so essential that all our Lift teams wanted to learn more about it to better design their own reform plans, so we’re sharing here our first Lift learning module on user research. It’s packed with an introduction, tips on developing a research plan, research methods, and tools, and more. 

Here are the essentials:

The what and why of user research 

User research is a term that encompasses all the activities that we do to better understand the people that interact with a specific system or process. Some typical actors in the procurement landscape include vendors, buyers within the government, and procurement teams, but also those that benefit from a service. To get useful insights about how to change or create a new process or system often requires asking these actors for their thoughts and feelings, i.e. “research.” The better we understand these actors, the better we are able to engage them in our reform efforts and shape our strategies. 

Take the Lift teams in New Orleans and Buenos Aires. Both want to expand small and medium business (SME’s) participation in the government procurement process. By conducting user research, the teams will be able to understand the major barriers that SME’s face in becoming new government vendors. The teams’ findings will shape their solutions.

User research is very helpful at uncovering the real blockers to reform, rather than what we assume are the challenges. For example, cities might learn that a major barrier is that SME lack information about bidding opportunities. Or they might discover that pieces of their internal processes prevent a more diverse vendor pool. These are different problems that will require unique solutions to achieve impact. (This research is particularly valuable when used together with empirical approaches such as Citimart’s analysis of challenges to SMEs.)

What next: getting started

If you can talk to people, you can do user research – one typical user research method is interviews. Other common approaches include focus groups, shadowing and observing, and service trials. 

Do you want to get started on user research of your own? Try creating a Research Plan. A Research Plan, or “framework”, is a document that defines your research objectives, key themes and questions, and the methods you will use. It helps you map out what you’ll need to better understand and determine how to best collect this information. You can find our Research Plan template here.    

User research is useful for projects at many levels of government and civil society – not just cities. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the reform team chose to survey SME’s to understand what barriers they were facing to bid on public contracts. The team heard from SME’s that they perceived a lack of transparency, direct award of lower value contracts, and complex bidding procedures all as deterrents. By engaging these users, the Kyrgyz government had a better understanding of the challenge at hand and could design an appropriate solution. 

Check out or learning module deck for more information about examples,  methods and tips. And let us know if you have any questions – or interesting findings.