Drawing the Lines of Battle – End-User Interviews on the Streets of Hackney

Fionn outside the Hackney CAB

Fionn outside the Hackney CAB

A rainy morning on Hackney’s high street is probably no-ones idea of a great time, but after continued propaganda from the Hub Launchpad team on the benefits of “getting out the building,” we took our testing to the frontline of financial exclusion.

Yet sticking your head above the parapet can sometimes be harder than it seems. Speaking directly with customers inside the Citizens Advice Bureau apparently violated their confidentiality, so we were hurried on, forced to retreat to the sodden steps outside.

Bemused but undeterred, we soldiered on in our attempts to interview potential users. Surprisingly, it was great to find that despite discussing the difficult subject matters of debt, rent arrears and budgetary advice, the people of Hackney were generally happy to talk. From a landlady carrying out an eviction to a man on the edge of homelessness, people were surprisingly open with their stories, giving great insights to cross-check against earlier research.

Our truce with the CAB proved short-lived, however, when an irate employee launched a tirade of anger over our encampment. Unable to explain how personal stories freely given in a public space violated “confidentiality requirements,” we soon found ourselves deep inside the bowels of the Bureau, explaining ourselves and our purpose to a much more receptive supervisor.

After some time we managed to alleviate their concerns, but not their desire for us to leave, as evidenced by the suggestion that we conduct our survey elsewhere. Regrouping over rations of Turkish pizza for lunch, we had a look at what we had learned from the whole experience.

In fact, much of what people had told us confirmed the findings from our previous research. Three problem areas really stood out: firstly, that people often struggled in the transition between one payment schedule and another, for example when moving from weekly benefits payments to a month’s wages in arrears from work, and vice versa. Secondly, unexpected “flashpoint” expenses like a car breakdown could push even the most balanced of budgets over the edge. And thirdly, the simple fact that the toxic combination of increasing costs of living, stagnant wages, and continuing welfare reform is imposing a long-term decline in people’s expendable income.

These three reasons came up time and again in our desk-based research, but hearing people’s stories really brought home what it feels like to actually experience those problems.  It follows, then, that the solution we create must be flexible enough to respond to each of these three scenarios.

Valuable lessons learned, then, in how to communicate and deliver our mission – as well as the realisation that to wage a war against a social problem, we’re going to have to expect a few battles.