One challenge High Speed Two (HS2) were facing was that rapid growth meant they didn’t have a clear picture of their users and their needs; the people across HS2 are busily designing, managing, consulting, or otherwise supporting the development of the railway.

Lior Smith, a service designer at Rainmakerexplains more:

HS2 is the UK’s second high speed rail line, running North from London, initially to Birmingham. And the first main line railway to be built in the UK since 1899. Over the last year or so, while the Bill to give HS2 permission to commence building the railway works its way through Parliament, they have been busy building an organisation that is capable of delivery and ready to start construction.

The Information and Technology group in HS2, led by CIO James Findlay, is responsible for delivering the requiredDigital information services which are critical capabilities for HS2, enabling and supporting everything they do.

To put them in the best position to do this, HS2 have been working in partnership with us, to move to a service design approach for all of their digital information services.

As part of this engagement, Tom Brown and I, Lior Smith, were commissioned to lead a ten week user research project to investigate how the HS2 team use technology and to develop a broad and shallow, big picture understanding of the HS2 team and their needs; described through a set of user personas.

The project was commissioned by Jeremy Foot, HS2’s Head of Information Management, and Jan Ford, Head of Service Transition, who Tom and I affectionately nicknamed ‘J2’. They were great clients to work with: comfortable with uncertainty; hungry for new ideas and fresh approaches; happy to help out with unblocking barriers. This worked perfectly with our agile approach to the project (more on that later).

This broad understanding of HS2 IT’s technology users would help us make more informed decisions, set strategy for our services and set the scene for more detailed, continuous user research across our delivery portfolios further down the line.

Being a young organisation relatively new to user research, this was also an opportunity for HS2 to experiment with a new way of understanding themselves, trying out a range of techniques to see how they work, and to give their people exposure and experience of doing real user research.

A key aim of this project was also to make proper user research stick in future so we wanted a way to capture the experience to guide further user research in HS2. Rainmaker were therefore asked not just to help deliver a research project for our client, but also to equip them for the future.

We achieved this by making a real commitment to skills transfer, delivering the whole project in close collaboration with HS2 Business Analysts and producing a toolkit laying out guidelines for conducting effective user research in future.

Service design approach

The style of research we used in this instance is called ‘design research’.

It’s highly visual to increase engagement. It’s an open-style to capture the unexpected. And it communicates narratives from users to build empathy in the decision makers.

The result is an engaging research process that fosters a deeper understanding between technology users and the strategic decision makers who decide what technology shall be designed and then bought or built.

These are some of the techniques we used:

“What’s the one thing you would change about HS2?”

Pop-up mini-interviews

Researchers simply turned up at each of the four HS2 offices armed with bunting, snacks and questions to begin building a high level picture of HS2’s user base.

They asked users about their roles, asking questions such as “What’s the one thing you would change about HS2?”, “What takes too long to do that should be quick?” and “How could HS2 be improved through technology?”.

Through this format, we managed to speak with over 50 people across all sites, for between 10–30 minutes each, within the first two weeks of the project.

Here we are ecosystem mapping

Tool-based interviews

The broad questions asked in the initial mini-interviews were very much the minimum viable product stage of the interview process — we just wanted to get talking to real users as soon as we could. The feedback from these initial interviews equipped us with the high-level understanding of the organisation and its users to decide on what we wanted to find out more about in the upcoming more in-depth interviews.

Rather than coming up with a list of questions, we found out about how HS2 staff work by asking them to talk through their typical working week and designed a set of visual A3 paper tools to facilitate this.

The style of these interviews is intentionally kept loose and informal. This avoids closed and leading questions, and allows the participants to communicate what’s important to them using interactive tools. It makes the interview feel less like … an interview!


As well as doing the research, and doing it in a joint project team with HS2’s Business Analysts, we wanted to make the new approaches really stick and we wanted to share what we’d learned with an even wider audience.

So, we decided to turn our materials into a toolkit, with detailed information on all of the research techniques, and published it on Github.

In this toolkit, there’s a great deal of detail on what worked and didn’t work for us at HS2. Although it’s bespoke for HS2, we hope it will be helpful to other user researchers and design researchers at HS2, in Government, or anywhere! There’s lots of one-pagers about techniques, with detail of when and how to use them. You can also see the personas and the paper tools we developed and used at HS2 in the appendix

Additionally, it is worth noting that delivering this using an Agile methodology was vital in giving our team the necessary room to manoeuvre in a fast paced environment, learn from our mistakes fast, iterate our processes as we went along and be genuinely adaptable from beginning to end. All of the questions we asked, the paper-based tools we used and the list of users and demographics to target for interviews all went through various iterations to respond to the ever-changing needs of the project and the lessons we learnt as we progressed.

So what did we achieve?

We have left HS2 with the insight into their users that they wanted.

They have a carefully crafted set of user personas that will help shape the design and delivery of digital information services in HS2 and drive their approach, thinking and future engagement.

HS2 now have a better understanding of their users’ pain points, needs and ideas to make things better. This material will form the basis for more detailed user research and more service-specific user personas as they apply it in emerging delivery projects.

We have left HS2 with the insight into their users that they wanted.

They have the toolkit, and some experience of how to do user research in HS2. Their people (and ours!) have gained from the experience and there’s a clearer understanding of a user-centric, needs-based approach.

But Jan and Jeremy have reported that their real delight was the breadth of insight gained into the people who work in HS2 — not only what they do but how they feel.

“We have something that’s of far more use than just informing information service delivery.”


In his post about this project on the GDS User Research Blog, Jeremy writes

“It’s the first time the organisation has understood itself from the perspective of the people who work in it, and will help inform a whole range of other work to develop the organisation in terms of capabilities, culture and ways of working.”

Finally, all of our findings were presented in a very visual way — the end report isn’t a report, it’s an exhibition wall. Walking our stakeholders through this exhibition was much more engaging than emailing them a report to read and we received really positive feedback on this approach from all those who attended.

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