Doing user research in prisons

Since April, I’ve been at His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), developing new digital services for operational staff. This has involved me visiting many prisons to conduct in-person user research (hooray! it’s back!) and as a result I’ve learned a lot about working in this environment. I wanted to share those learnings, in case it helped future user researchers working in prisons, but also for anyone who is a) curious about what it’s like to work in this space, or b) able to apply these learnings to other unusual research settings.

The prison landscape

View of a typical prison wing © The Independent

Prisons are places to detain and rehabilitate people who have been convicted, or may be convicted, of committing criminal offences. In England and Wales, the government executive agency where I work, HMPPS, is responsible for overseeing the prison estate, as well as the probation service that supports prison leavers as they re-enter the community.

Currently, there are about 120 prisons in England and Wales, with a prison population of around 82,000. Not all prisons are the same, however. Most are publicly run, with a small minority managed by the private sector. Some prisons are remotely located, whereas others are in cities and town centres — typically near the courts that give initial prison sentences. Some prisons house people who have a long time left on their sentence, focusing energy on rehabilitation while in prison — whereas others take in people who are reaching the end of their sentence, and focus on preparing them for their release.

Most prisons are solely for adult men — by far, the biggest proportion of people in prison. There are other prisons for women, others for young people, and occasionally a mix. Prisons also differ in terms of their security classification — for example, the highest security prisons house the people considered most dangerous to the public or national security, and these people are under very strict controls when it comes to moving around the prison. The lowest security prisons, on the other hand, may help people in prison secure work in the community, so they may actually leave the prison for the day and return each night.

I could go on — and describe not only the different types of prison, but also the complexities of a single prison, and the variety of people who may work there! The point of sharing this, however, is to illustrate that the prison landscape is big and complex. And as with all user research, it’s important to understand the context that our users operate in.

Things I knew before visiting prison

The user research community at HMPPS is amazing. They have a raft of knowledge and resources to draw from, so before my first visit I received a lot of useful information and advice from the folks who’ve been doing this for way longer than me! The following points have really stuck with me, so I wanted to share them wider.

Security is no joke

As you can probably imagine, a prison is a very controlled environment, and security has to be tight. So be prepared for airport style security, where you and your belongings are searched as you arrive. Only bring the things you really need, to speed up this process. Bring ID — you won’t be let in without it!

And always check the prison’s list of prohibited items beforehand, so you don’t run into any issues. This list can vary depending on the security classification of the prison. So, while some prohibited items seem quite obvious, for instance mobile phones, others were more surprising to me. Headphones, chewing gum, and tinfoil on your sandwiches are all big no-nos — and not things I would have necessarily thought about beforehand.

Get organised

Getting through security efficiently is one reason to get organised and start planning your visit early. Another is that a prison visit takes a lot of effort from the staff member sponsoring you — so help them out by giving them as much information as possible about what you want to see and do on your visit, who you want to speak to, and who is visiting with you. They’ll help you organise the day, as well as identify any issues that you haven’t thought of — like the aforementioned tinfoil!

Make sure you request permission to bring any tech needed for user research well in advance, such as a laptop for usability testing or a dictaphone for recording interviews. The prison will need to assess and approve your request, and it’s possible they might say no — so always plan a back up way of collecting research data. Handwritten notes may end up being the way to go.

Plan for Plan B

Even with all the planning in the world, you just don’t know what might happen on the day. It’s really important to be flexible to changing demands in the prison — for instance, adapting research so it’s shorter, if staff are quite busy, and prioritising the most important questions first, in case something urgent crops up. Your visit may even be cancelled, or have to end early, if there is a security issue. Just try and go with the flow, and when things don’t go to plan I find it’s always worth keeping your eyes open — observation is a valuable and unobtrusive method that can teach us a lot about our users’ needs and the environment users operate in.

Look after yourself

Prisons are busy, noisy places. I was warned of this before my first visit, and was reminded to make time for breaks between sessions and after the visit. It really can be physically draining to be around a high level of noise all day, especially if you’re not used to it.

Visits can also be emotionally draining. Planning to visit a prison can be nerve-wracking — you don’t quite know what to expect, what will happen on the day, who you’ll meet, and what you’ll see. You’ll never entirely know the answers to these questions in advance, but you can ask your sponsor which parts of the prison you’ll visit, and if your research doesn’t require you to be on a prison wing you can ask to opt out of visiting that space if preferred.

Remember, also, that you’ll never be left alone in prison — you’ll always be with an escort who will show you around and will know what to do in case of an emergency. So be patient when they may have to fulfil another task before escorting you somewhere in the prison. It’s also nice to show gratitude for their assistance, as having visitors can really disrupt an escort’s day.

Another reason you shouldn’t be alone is that it’s good practice to conduct all user research with a buddy. In a space like prison, this is vital for a number of reasons. Practically, if you aren’t able to record user research, a buddy can help you with note-taking and debriefing. You can also support each other during and after a visit, particularly if you observed anything distressing.

Things I learned after visiting prison

Although I felt pretty prepared to visit prison, I still learned a lot from actually doing it. So here’s some more reflections and tips for others planning to visit this peculiar space.

Plan for Plan C

Even when you’ve done everything right, and you think you’ve planned for contingency really well — things go wrong. Even when I’ve had security approval to bring tech into a prison, sometimes the infrastructure of the prison has prevented it from working as expected. For instance, a lot of prison hardware is very old, so think about how newer tech is compatible (or not) with old devices. For the first time in years, I had to connect my MacBook to a projector screen using an ethernet cable — and for that, I needed to buy a suitable connector and cable that worked with the new Apple ports. This is simple enough to fix, but I‘m not sure I would have thought about this until I saw the equipment prison staff are working with.

Wifi is another thing to keep in mind. The prototypes we use at HMPPS are typically accessed online. Originally, I tried to use an HMPPS-approved portable wifi device whilst in prison, but some buildings are so old, with thick, concrete walls, that no wifi would work reliably. So, consider how prototypes can be adapted to work offline. You could set up your online prototype to be accessed locally, or you could switch to a tool like Figma. And always be prepared to ditch the laptop entirely. I now print out the prototype screens I want to show users, in case anything happens where it’s actually more effective to revert to paper prototyping.

Remote research isn’t a quick fix

With all the challenges around visiting a prison, you may be wondering why remote user research hasn’t been adopted more widely. Well, it is possible in some scenarios, but it comes with its own challenges. Those aforementioned hardware issues, for one. Some prison staff only have old desktop computers that are used in open plan offices — so it can be hard for users to focus on research sessions. It also may not be appropriate for users to have a session in that type of environment, especially if the topic of the research is sensitive.

Another issue — which honestly blew my mind — is that some prisons don’t have working speakers, or access to tools like Teams. So it’s not actually possible to have video calls with them. In those cases, I’ve reverted to holding telephone research sessions, encouraging users to take the call in a quieter and more private space. This is better than nothing, but it’s not ideal to conduct research without being able to observe body language, eye contact or other visual cues that give greater context to user responses.

Accessibility comes first

We should always be thinking about accessibility when developing new digital services, but the limitations I’ve mentioned in the prison estate really forced the whole team to take seriously situational accessibility — and prioritise approaches and solutions that take this into account. This went beyond how we did user research, but also impacted our designs, development, implementation and data collection.

So, what does all this mean for you, especially those of you who aren’t actually working in prisons? I think there are many useful elements to consider in other research settings, such as how we look after our wellbeing as user researchers, how we adapt research to the environment we operate in, and how central accessibility must be considered. All in all, I find this a great example of why I love user research — it’s never dull, it’s never the same, and I’m always learning new things.

And on that point — if anyone has anything to add from their experience researching in different environments, I’d love to hear about them!

With thanks to Tom Rooker for proofreading.

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Kate Stulberg

Senior User Researcher at Ministry of Justice. Previously Citizens Advice, NHS Digital & Action for Children. @katestulbergux