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Working at the DWP

Sian Knight discusses her work as a Lead User Researcher at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

  • Name: Sian Knight
  • Current position: Lead User Researcher
  • Organisation: Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
  • Date of Interview: January 2023

Give a brief overview of your organisation. 

I work within the Digital Group at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as a Lead User Researcher.  The Department is responsible for welfare, pensions and child maintenance policy.  As the UK’s biggest public service department, we administer the State Pension and a range of working age, disability and ill health benefits to around 20 million claimants and customers.

User Research is one of the roles that sits within the Digital, Data and Technology profession in the Civil Service. Job families within the profession include data, IT operations, product and delivery, quality assurance, technical and user centred design. User researchers are usually embedded in service teams and their role is to help teams learn about their users and ensure that services that are being developed meet the users’ needs. They do research with users to understand the problem which the organisation and team is trying to solve and to find out the users’ needs, drawing on different methods and approaches to do that. Services designed around user needs are more likely to be used, help more people get the right outcome and cost less by reducing time and money spent on resolving problems so we are also supporting and meeting business needs.   

We have around 100 user researchers working in DWP Digital, many of whom are embedded in product and service teams, covering all of the main areas we are responsible for, including Universal Credit, Health and Disability, Retirement, Bereavement and Care, Child Maintenance and Fraud Error and Debt. There are also researchers working on teams to ensure that the equipment, software and systems that our 90,000 staff use meet their needs and are the most effective and efficient they can be, so they can focus their time on supporting citizens.  

As a Practice Lead, I am jointly responsible for developing the standards and processes to ensure a consistent and high-quality approach to the research is adopted. Among other things, I am also responsible for learning and development for the user research community, ethics and safeguarding, recruitment and professional mentoring of our researchers.  

Are you aware of postdoctoral researchers employed in your organisation?

We have had and continue to employ a number of postdoctoral researchers in the user research community. They bring strong research skills and have been successful in applying those skills in a more agile environment.

The entry level into research is as an Associate User Researcher, which is Higher Executive Officer (HEO) level.  For this level, we look for people with some knowledge and understanding of research, but they may not have extensive experience of leading on, designing and conducting their own research projects or being able to evidence how research has been implemented and acted upon. Depending on the type of research undertaken, this may be the most appropriate entry level.

The next level is as a User Researcher, which is the Senior Executive Officer (SEO) level in the Civil Service hierarchy and a number of postdoctoral researchers have been successful in applying to these roles. At this level, we look for people with more applied research skills and experience and researchers who are able to evidence how their research has had an influence or impact on others.


Give a brief overview of your professional experience.  

I graduated from Cambridge University over 20 years ago and have spent the majority of my career working in different research disciplines in the public, private and academic sector. After a bit of a false start working as a financial adviser for a bank, I started working in a local authority in the economic development team. While there I started a part time MSc in Local Economic Regeneration and ended up getting a job at the university with the Professor who delivered the course, working on evaluations, strategy development and research projects relating to social and economic regeneration. This was my first experience of a research role and where I really learned about the principles and basics of being a good researcher and I’ve been a researcher in some form ever since.

During my career I’ve learned lots more research skills and gained other important experience, such as leadership, management and business development, from working in market research agencies, local authority insight teams and before my current role, as the lead of the audience insight team at the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

I then joined DWP in my current role in 2019, an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. It was a bit of a risk for me as I had not worked as a user researcher before, but I felt I had a lot of the transferable skills, such as extensive research experience and leadership, which would help me. It was a steep learning curve but I’ve enjoyed the challenge and have learned many other new skills along the way.

Why do you do your job?  

I’ve worked in the public, private and charity sectors in all sorts of different research roles and I’ve always found myself drawn back to the public sector because of the values it represents and the work that we do to help and support people. The opportunity to work at the biggest government department was too much of an attraction for me so I had to apply.

In DWP we research with some of the most vulnerable people in the country so the work our researchers do is helping to make it easier for people to get the help, support and ultimately the money they need to help them through challenging times. So the work we do is vitally important and I am proud to play a small part in that.

I’m a researcher because I am fascinated by human behaviour and like to find things out and keep digging away until I get to the answers I want or need. When I lose that curiosity to find out more and keep learning about people, then I’ll probably not want to be in research anymore but I’m not sure that will ever happen.

Working in the Civil Service also gives you access to lots of other benefits, such as flexible working, lots of learning and development opportunities and a generous pension scheme. I have a much better work life balance than when I worked in the private sector and appreciate the flexibility that the Department offers.

What is it about the industry that keeps you motivated?  

I’ve worked as a researcher for many years and I find it difficult to imagine doing anything else. Within user research there are opportunities for progression, either within DWP, in other government departments or in the private sector. There is strong demand for user researchers and other user centred design professionals at the moment so it’s unlikely that the demand will fall in the short term.

Within DWP, we have access to a full suite of learning and training opportunities that are provided through Civil Service Learning. We also have a generous learning budget for researchers to access training outside of the core offer, for some of the more user research specific training and also to attend industry conferences. There are also opportunities for all sorts of informal learning and development, so it’s up to the individual to decide how much they want to get involved in learning and development and the direction they wish to take.

On top of that we have developed a programme to support researchers who want to make the step to becoming a Senior User Researcher, in the form of a package of training and mentoring. We are due to roll that out in 2023.   

What attributes would someone need to be successful in your organisation? 

The main attributes we look for when recruiting into the User Researcher role are research skills and experience. These skills could have been learned in any research discipline, including academic studies, market research or social research. The main thing is the ability to understand research, what methods you might use to answer your research questions, any ethical implications of your research and how you might address them and the ability to analyse and present your research findings so they can be understood and implemented.

These are the main attributes we look for, but there are other skills and behaviours which are also important when working as a user researcher. These include being able to communicate your research clearly, defend your research and persuade others to take your findings on board, being able to work at pace and potentially balance multiple pieces of work and priorities at any one time.  The digital and agile aspects of working as a user researcher can be learned and successful applicants who are not experienced in working in this setting or way will be supported and offered training to help them.

Could you describe your recruitment process? 

As mentioned in relation to the previous question, the Civil Service has a clear framework which we follow in our recruitment processes.

The advert will set out the ask for all applicants for the process. At application stage, this may include the submission of a CV and supporting statement, setting out how you meet the essential criteria of the role. Alternatively, it may be a CV and a short description of how you meet each of the identified behaviours.

Those applicants who are successful at sift will be invited for interview. This is likely to include a short presentation on a topic that is provided at the same time as the invitation to interview and a series of questions. The questions will be related to the Behaviours and Technical Skills that are included in the advert and may include some questions about your strengths and experience.

It may sound very obvious, but the most important thing to remember at the interview stage is to listen to and answer the question that is being asked. The most common mistake we see are people who have clearly done a lot of preparation against the skills and behaviours, but instead of tailoring the example to answer the question, they just read it out. We do use prompts to try and get the answer to the question asked but it makes it easier if applicants respond to the question asked.

Also ensure that when giving your example that you cover the basics, such as setting the scene and explaining the context. So, for example, if you are asked to talk about your research, start by explaining what the research was about, what you were trying to find out and what methods and approaches you used to answer your research questions.


What would be your top tip for getting a role in your organisation?

The Civil Service adopts the Success Profiles framework for its recruitment process. It ensures that all the recruitment that we do is fair and transparent. There is a lot of information available about the Success Profiles approach, which we would recommend prospective applicants familiarise themselves with.

The job advert will clearly set out which aspects of the Success Profile will be assessed as part of the process. That could include Behaviours, Technical Skills or Experience. My main advice would be to read the advert carefully and all of the supporting information provided about success profiles. When preparing for an interview, ensure that you have examples prepared that relate to the Behaviours and Skills and that they are clear in terms of the context, your role and the overall outcome.


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