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Four ways city councils can get to know their users

Kristy Blazo User Experience Consultant

Beyond the focus group - Four ways for city councils to get to know your residents, visitors and business owners.

As a User Experience Consultant, one of the key responsibilities I have is to truly understand the people we are creating for in order to ensure that the digital solutions we create for them are aligned with their needs and provide value to them. I recently read a thought piece about how there is a division in our work into first, making sure that we are building the right solutions and then, ensuring that we are building those things right*. 

This first duty, to “build the right thing”, necessitates a particular level of knowledge of a person that extends beyond demographics that define who they are to behavioural understandings like what they think and how they are motivated. This information allows us to come up with appropriate, relevant and meaningful tools to help them in getting what they need. 

In working with city councils here in Melbourne, I’ve found this to be especially valuable information, as the array of services that a council provides span from functional to social, from utility to entertainment. I have also identified three key audience groups that we need to understand: residents, business owners and visitors.

Many councils have already incorporated interaction with these groups at some level, usually through online surveys and the occasional focus group. Though a focus group is a step in the right direction, you may have experienced one or more of the following issues with this format: 

- conversation can quickly turn into a complaints session

- “groupthink” and fear of conflict can influence participants’ participation

- honest answers to direct questions like “what do you need from us?” can be difficult to obtain

Because of this, I’d like to suggest some alternative ways to learn about your audiences that we have found to be much more successful (and more fun!).  

1. Host a Workshop

A great substitute for a focus group, a 2 hour session of planned activities allows for increased engagement by participants, providing us with a deeper understanding of who they are and how they think. We find that the core questions we need to ask, “Who are you?” and “What do you need from us?” are quite confronting and difficult to answer. A carefully designed approach with a mix of individual and group activities can reveal clues that help to make predictions regarding their digital needs. 

Generally, the first half of the workshop is designed to uncover the Current State of the participants’ interactions with the council, utilising discussions and activities that lead toward the generation of outputs like Personas and User Journeys. Then, the second half is devoted to identifying pain points and opportunities and working with participants to co-create solutions in many forms. 

We found that residents were willing to come in to the council offices for this one, as it was an opportunity for them to provide feedback and contribute to the future of their city. Many participants even thanked us for the opportunity! Compensation isn’t always necessary, but snacks and beverages are usually appreciated. 

2. Schedule Contextual Interviews

This is a fantastic one for Business Owners. A contextual interview involves taking a trip to the participant’s home or place of business to ask your questions in a more relevant and comfortable environment for him or her. This allows for interaction with objects or photographs, as well as much more realistic reenactments of scenarios (say, sitting at his or her desk to walk you through a typical visit the council website). You’ll also find that the environment provides you with clues about who they are, what they value and how they operate. Lastly, it presents more opportunities to speak to business owners who are too busy to come in to the council offices for a group session. 

3. Head out for a few hours of unscheduled Guerilla Interviews

Similar to the Contextual Interview, Guerrilla Interviews involve stepping out of the office to speak to people in a more appropriate environment. They are unplanned and involve impromptu conversations with people in the places that they choose to visit. This could mean stopping people on the street, in the library or another public place where they might be utilising council services. This is a fantastic way to reach visitors, as you likely won’t have a list of contacts for this group to set up a more formal interaction. It requires little or no budget. An hour out of the office can reveal a wealth of insights and might bust some dangerous assumptions that you have made about your residents and visitors. 

We spent some time on the streets of Melbourne, hanging out in popular tourist spots for this one. A quick chat can reveal things about the interviewee’s current plans, a reason (s)he is in town, his or her opinions on the city and current council services and suggestions for visitor services

4. Observe 

Observation requires a notebook and an open mind. Like the Guerilla Interviews, this is a great activity that requires no budget. You should pick a popular spot where you know you might see people from your audience group utilising council services. However, this activity does not require conversation, but instead focuses on what people are doing and what is influencing them. Find a spot to sit and observe the people coming and going for a couple of hours. Who are they with? What is their mood? Who or what are they interacting with? How long are they staying? A useful acronym for your notes is POEMS (Kumar and Whitney, 2003)**.

P - People

O - Objects

E - Environments

M - Messages

S - Services

Note the people and environments, the services they utilise and the objects they interact with. Messages could be conveyed through their conversations, movements or even facial expressions. Record everything. 

As a bonus, you can choose to then chat with the employees they interact with, asking what the most popular questions or service requests are. We spent some time in the Town Hall and the Visitors Centre, which resulted in the identification of key problems that residents were coming in for and popular questions from visitors, leading to changes to the council websites. Like the guerilla interviews, this is a great low-budget opportunity to learn more about the people you are designing services for.

What are you waiting for?

The findings from your research will enable you to make more empathetic, customer-focused decisions and can inspire the development of new or improved services and digital offerings for your residents, visitors and business owners. None of these suggested methods require much of a budget and all provide you with a better understanding of these groups along with stories to share across the council. Adding a small amount of time for regular interaction with your audiences will improve the value of service you provide to them. 


** Kumar V, Whitney P. Faster, Cheaper, Deeper User Research. Design Management Journal (Spring 2003): 50-57. As referenced at

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