User research guide

Raise awareness and empower public servants to do more user research when developing government products and services.

Ontario Digital Service

Release date


I was responsible for


Research operations


Content design

Service design


Understand the problem

There are so many questions about user research

When I first joined the Ontario Public Service (OPS), I was asked some challenging questions from OPS employees. Here are some highlights:

Identifying research objectives

  • When is the best time to do user research?
  • How long will it take to do user research?
  • How do I identify target user groups when we are meant to design for everyone?
  • When do you know that you have done enough user research?

Getting stakeholder buy-in

  • How do you get approvals to do user research?
  • How do I communicate the value of user research to my superiors?
  • How can I get my superiors more involved when they are so busy?

Streamlining research operations

  • How much are we supposed to pay participants?
  • How do you recruit participants in my ministry?
  • Do you have an existing template to get consent from participants?
  • What is the protocol for recording participants?

What we discovered

OPS employees wanted:

  • standardized user research guidelines
  • answers quickly, ideally before going through approvals
  • feedback on their projects from our user research team
  • a space to do user research with their participants

Services that enable user research in the OPS

User research guide

Through collaboration and research, I gathered together best practices for:

  • how to get buy-in from stakeholders
  • recruitment strategies
  • consent and compensation guidelines
  • privacy considerations
Visit the guide

Lab space for conducting user research

The lab team can offer space and equipment for any OPS member to conduct user research when needed.

User research drop-ins

Any OPS member can drop-in at the lab and get expert user research and design advice from a team of experience designers. The 2 hour drop-in sessions take place every 2 weeks.

In-house user research projects

The lab team takes on high priority user research projects from ministry partners when we have capacity. They can also find qualified service designer and user researches from a vendor list.

I do not take full credit for these standards, services, or programs. The purpose for displaying these services are to showcase how the user research guide is part of a holistic delivery model in collaboration with colleagues from Ontario Digital Service. View collaborators here.

User research supports the development process for excellent government services

Here are a list of standards and principles that help teams in government develop excellent services:

  • Digital Service Standard: 14 criterias to help anyone build and deliver excellent government services.
  • Service Design Playbook: Information that outlines the process of executing government services by forming the best team, understanding problems, conducting user research, prototyping, and testing concepts.
  • Service Design vendor of record: List of solo entrepreneurs or large corporations who are qualified to help OPS employees conduct user research, solve problems, and propose design solutions based on findings.
  • Digital leadership: 8 principles that reflect our philosophy of leadership, and how we work in practice to lead as part of a digital organization in Ontario.

Digital leadership principles

Digital leadership principles include: obsess about the user, be agile and iterative, work out loud, embrace the chaos, use the data, challenge everything, be prepared to fail, and be unreasonably aspirational

You may download a copy of the principles here.


How the user research lab has made an impact

In the span of over a year from August 2018 to September 2019, the user research lab has connected with many ministry partners to collectively share and implement best user research practices.

User research guide


Unique page views for Ontario’s User Research Guide with no marketing spend.

3 min 38 sec

Average time spent on the page. This is one minute higher compared to other pages on


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User research drop-ins


Drop-in sessions were hosted to answer any questions or share expertise about user research and design.

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OPS employees and contractors have shown up in the drop-ins to talk about challenges and needs.

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Ministry departments connected at user research drop-in.

The user research lab continues to provide and improve user research services for OPS employees.


  • Although there are not many unique visitors to the user research guide, data suggests that people are engaged with the content once they land on the page.
  • Keeping the drop-in sessions informal created an open, non-judgemental, and inclusive environment to hear shared experiences.
  • By connecting many ministry partners together, we were able to identify duplicate initiatives for the same problem. This enabled teams to connect with each other, diversify their approach, and create more meaningful services.
  • In ministry departments that have only one analyst working on multiple products, it created a space to learn and bounce ideas off each other.


Champions of excellent service standards.

Nadine Adelaar

Nadine and I worked together to start the user research drop-ins, which become a tradition and has served many members of the OPS with their user research inquiries and projects ever since.

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Honey Dacanay

Honey led the Ontario Digital Service Standard and Simpler, Faster, Better Services Act. Her work has been crucial to raise the standards for high quality digital government services.

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Dana Patton

Dana is the primary author of the Service Design Playbook. Dana is the founder of Service Design Guild, where you can connect with the community and attend many workshops and events.

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Katherine Benjamin

Katherine started and managed user research labs in Kitchener and Toronto until 2018. The labs implemented user-centred service design practices across OPS.

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Xiaopu Fung

Xiaopu leads the Kitchener lab since 2018 and has led many weekly design sprints, which incorporates user research and prototyping to validate concepts quickly.

Access portfolio

Mirjana Risek

Mirjana leads the Toronto lab since 2019 and continues to streamline research operations, host drop-ins, and take on user research projects when needed.

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Sameer Vasta

Sameer introduced 8 principles for digital leadership with the focus on people and what it means to be a public service leader in the internet era.

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Shannah Segal

Shannah is our head of experience design chapter and has led the Service Design vendor of record for teams across the OPS to consult with service design experts.

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Hillary Hartley

Hillary is our shit umbrella, our leader for all things digital in government, and has been a long time champion for user-centered government services.

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