Does Bulk-Buy Fly? User Testing at The Mill

MSM Outside The Mill

There’s only so much reading and report writing you can do before knowing whether what you’re up to is right – eventually, it’s about time you road-tested.

After a whirlwind start, the Hub Launchpad jolted into its 7th week – the halfway point, and a time to take stock. We’d made some significant progress in honing our market, defining our problem, and producing a solid body of research – but often we’d made the most progress when speaking directly with our users.

Having steeled ourselves on the streets of Hackney, a new opportunity emerged to reconnect with our users. The Mill, a volunteer run community centre in the heart of Walthamstow, offered us three days to speak with people about the cost of living and how we might reduce it. As ever, the results weren’t exactly what we were expecting.

With food prices ever rising and energy companies arousing ire, our team had thought that bulk-buying products and services would be a great way of bringing peoples’ bills down.

We’d spoken to several groups who ran bulk-buy deals, which had helped us to identify several problem areas, such as how might the produce be distributed, and how much choice people would have over the goods they received.

Yet up in Walthamstow, peoples’ concerns were different. Even when recognising that saving money through bulk-buy schemes was a ‘good idea’, it was always an idea for someone else. “I feel this bulk-buy idea is second best to having flourishing local shops,” One woman remarked. “Even if it cost me more, I’d still want to support my local shops.”

Fionn Talking with Walthamstow Residents

The sentiment was echoed throughout our stay. “I’d rather there was an attempt to build neighbourliness in a small area,” said one man, who didn’t trust his energy supplier and yet hadn’t switched in 15 years. “The more connected to things and the better you know people, the better you feel so the less you need to spend.”

Guests of The Mill seemed to pine for community, and also expressed real enjoyment from sharing their money saving experiences – yet admitted to never having done so before we, as a group of strangers, had started the conversation.

Other recognised themes came to the fore too. When in financial trouble, people tended to rely on their social and familial connections, turning to public services often as a last resort. “I racked up £25,000 worth of debt with payday loans,” one woman told us. “Eventually I went to my father.”

Significantly, most people mentioned transition periods as being those that put the biggest pressure on their budgets. Moving from benefits to work or from two wage earners to one was a frequent concern, and something that has come up time and again in our research.

“I’ve learned my lesson with payday loans,” the woman continued, “but I’m just about to start a new job, and am quite worried about the changes that will bring to my money”

Mosaic Group at The Mill

If visiting The Mill served to dash our appetite for bulk buying, it also offered an array of fruitful alternatives. A “We Love Low Cost Living” event brought contacts with the local credit union and housing association, both willing to set up focus groups and eager to collaborate with future service designs.

After a long weekend The Mill had given us a lot – not just bellies full of free leek soup and foraged natural teas, but also greater insights into what people do and don’t want from the things that will save them money. That alone is useful food for thought.

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.