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Research meets policy in Scotland: a UX example

By Dr Mariola Tarrega, digital resources coordinator, Scottish Policy and Research Exchange

First published in Research Matters, April 2021 Issue

The Scottish Policy and Research Exchange (SPRE) supports researchers and policy makers to find smart solutions to policy challenges. We work with academic and independent researchers in Scotland to help them overcome barriers to engagement with policy professionals. A few months ago, we began a user experience (UX) project to design a digital guide to help with policy engagement.

Purpose of our digital guide

SPRE trains the academic community on policy engagement in the digital sphere. Although we encourage people to feed into the policy process, we didn’t have an online resource to help our users find information about how, when and why to engage with the policy community. So, we decided to create one.

Choosing to use a UX approach

 We advocate for using research evidence to inform policy processes, and so we applied this same principle to our design process. We wanted to avoid guessing how and why our target audience would use our tool, so UX was the design approach. UX encompasses the design tools and research methods to find out how users interact with our content; to understand their needs; and make the right choices for them. Users can help us design the structure of sections, use of multimedia, tone of language and more.

 Steps in UX

We began by benchmarking, asking: how can we create content that is easily read and offers insights to users who have limited time and other priorities? SPRE’s digital guide on policy engagement is not the first. There are at least six other online or PDF versions for the UK context. We analysed their respective navigation frameworks and content structures, interaction features, their readability and accessibility. We also reviewed academic research on policy engagement and interviewed experts and stakeholders.

We found that some guides had been designed for print and were difficult to read on screen. Some had large sections of unformatted text with little support for online reading (such as headings, bulleted lists, defined sections). According to a Nielsen Norman Group report on how people read online, people scan text rather than read every word. The amount of time they are willing to spend depends on their task, goals (for example, to find new information, research a topic), focus and personal preferences.

UX findings on our target audience

Our target users explained that they are usually overworked and have limited time for learning about how to engage with policy professionals. Our desk research and interviews found that, while most academics would like to engage with policy professionals, this can also create pressure and anxiety. They face barriers such as access to policy professionals, and limited time and resources. Existing guidance presents an idealised version of the relationships between policy professionals and academics. This mostly focuses on the process for parliamentary inquiry submissions, when there are many avenues for engagement.


We have used the learning from benchmarking for our prototype guide. We set out four steps to planning why, how, when and where academics can engage with policy professionals in Scotland. Our next step is usability testing to explore readability, content structure and users’ mental models.


In developing this work, we have found many crossovers in outlook and methods between UX in design and in social research. There is awareness that successful digital products need human-centred design. By examining the behaviour and demands of knowledgeable users, we can understand what human-centred means. Common UX methods include interviews, groups and participatory design. Next time you use a digital tool such as SPRE’s upcoming digital guide, take a moment to consider the research process behind its design.

Do you want to know more about this project? Drop us a line mariola.tarrega@spre.scot