User research. Photo: Tero Vesalainen / Getty images

User research with union reps

Over the last few months, the TUC Digital Lab has been collaborating with Accord to research how the union’s reps feel about technology, and to get pointers on where the union could best invest its resources in providing tech tools for this key group of users.

We worked on this with Joe Friel and Beth Scott of digital design and development agency Yalla Cooperative. They facilitated a series of workshops to help the union run a discovery process, and conducted a series of user interviews with reps.

In the process, we documented different personas and needs for types of rep and insights from the interviews. We used these to refine our understanding of key user journeys that reps and members go through, and to identify potentially helpful interventions that the union could make along each journey.


With 23,000 members, Accord is one of the TUC’s more specialised affiliate unions – representing members across Lloyds Banking Group and TSB. The pandemic has changed a lot for members, with more technology introduced to cover increased working from home and reduced travel between the branches that have remained open.

Accord has been engaged since 2020 in a programme to modernise its IT infrastructure. This has served them well during the pandemic and has enabled them to look at innovative work in areas such as online learning and case management. For some time they have been keen to improve the offering they make to reps in terms of tech tools.

But with a limited subscription base and staff resource, the union has to be confident of the success of a new venture before committing budget to it.

Why conduct user research?

This goes right back to two of the eight principles for union digital transformation that we devised in a workshop at the start of the Digital Lab project (with the involvement of Accord GS Ged Nichols):

“Start with user needs and keep them involved”


“Understand the problem before creating a solution”

Accord were mindful that they didn’t want to act on a hunch in building an app for reps, and then possibly find that what makes sense to them centrally does not seem as useful from the perspective of their members and reps.

To improve the chance of any intervention’s success, we wanted to understand more about the kind of tech that reps were already comfortable with, and the problems that they identified in their work that they might welcome tech solutions to.

This meant spending time putting ourselves into the shoes of Accord reps, so that we could better picture how any new ideas might appear to them. We also needed to directly validate our understanding with input from reps themselves, using qualitative interviews.

What we did

The first step was to try to understand the users we wanted to work with. We formed a project group of four Accord staffers, with organisers drawn from different areas of the employer group, as well as Accord head office.

We then ran a discovery workshop with the group. After establishing and documenting a common understanding of our aims for the project, we identified distinct personas for different types of reps. This allowed us to think about what might be different for reps from different situations, such as a newly elected rep, established lay leader, or a member who may be a prospective rep.

Personas are a useful tool for abstracting your thinking as a project manager. They help you think about the solution you are proposing from the users’ perspective and realise better where this may differ from your own thinking. Thinking about these personas enabled us to identify key factors in the demographics of this group, as well as their likely distinct behaviours, motivations and frustrations. This also helped us target our recruitment for the interviews.

We also workshopped potential questions for the interviews. It was important to make open questions that would give reps the chance to tell us about the issues we were interested in, but from their own perspective.

Often, we find it easiest to fall back on surveys for research, but where you are able to do them, interviews will provide much more insight. Surveys can be prone to confirmation bias – subconsciously being designed to tell you the answers you expect to hear. Done right, interviews let the user tell you their experience in their own context.

For the interviews, we put out a call across Accord’s reps, asking them to sign up to give us their feedback. We offered a small material incentive for their time (an online shopping voucher). Doing this often helps to gain a broader range of participants, rather than just hearing from those who are by nature keenest on what you are asking, and who may present a distorted picture if you rely only on their opinions.

In all 15 interviews were conducted over Zoom. They took up to 45 minutes, depending on how much they wanted to tell us. They started with general questions that established who the rep was and how they felt about their role, before moving on to more specific questions about technology and particular needs.

The aim here was as much to infer user needs, and to verify our assumptions in creating the personas, as it was to get concrete answers to questions.

This is because direct questions and surveys are much better at uncovering opinions rather than real life behaviours. It’s easy when asked “Do you think you would use a new union app?” to say yes to an abstract concept of what it could be, even if you probably wouldn’t use it in your own context.

What we wanted to do was to ask about behaviours, to uncover where reps’ pain points were in their role and what methods they instinctively used to solve them. By asking about their existing use of tech, we could see the context in which we would be asking them to adopt a new behaviour.

What did we find out?

We took notes throughout the interviews wherever an insight stood out to us. In a synthesis workshop, we grouped these to look for key topics. Here’s what we found as potential areas of need for reps that might be met by new tech development.

Private & accessible communication

“A better communication tool. Even though we do have them there isn’t one that brings everyone together to discuss things and communicate both with members and reps directly without jumping through hoops.”

  • Move away from the restrictions around employer-controlled emails & software.
  • Needs to be something that is secure AND that the members trust it is secure.
  • If it’s a third-party tool, look for one that everyone uses to get critical mass. eg Yammer may be more widely understood than WhatsApp, which is frowned on in parts of the employer.

Enabling quicker support & self-sufficiency

“Members need to know where info can be found, currently on the website it means trawling through it to get anything”

  • One place to go for resources. It must be easy to search
  • There is a misalignment between the time demand of the member (I need help now) and the time capacity of the rep (I need time to find the answer)
  • More automated and self-service ways of responding could:
    • Help members find first steps in advice and feel supported without the need of the rep every time.
    • Help manage expectations by starting a journey for the member rather than needing to wait for the rep to respond.
  • Laptop / desktop is the popular device at work.
  • Tablet / phone is the popular device at home.
  • Reps often have a laptop at home, but it’s a last resort for when they need to do a longer piece of work. Often it’s outdated or shared with the family.
  • People though do always have access to their phone (work or home)
  • So interventions should ideally be cross-platform, but probably mobile-first.

Improving access to training

“It has been difficult to arrange offline training so I feel a bit underprepared sometimes”

  • Need a way to do more training online. Reps are willing to do this and were very positive to the union’s offering they had used so far.
  • However there was also a sense that resources doesn’t equal training – need to find a more interactive way to keep reps’ attention.
  • Issues with tech access etc might indicate a need for greater digital training

Knowing who everyone is

“I’d really like a tool to find out who of the people I work with are affiliated with Accord to verify who they are and access their ID without contacting HQ”

  • This could help reps better know their members, reduce time to offering support, and open useful organising conversations.
  • And it could be developed to make it easier for members to know who their reps are. That has become harder to do with increased working from home.

Restoring a sense of community

“It’s a shame to always do it online. I feel like we’re losing touch with members. Meetings are a big part of getting to know other people”

  • Challenges of homework affect a number of things
    • Awareness (e.g. posters, stands, rep walking around)
    • Training (Offline training is also seen as integral with networking and making contacts)
    • The networking side of meetings.
  • There is still very much a key desire for community – it’s a big strength of the union
  • Two-way communication is important – being able to comment (not just receive)

Recruitment + awareness

“I would like communication to be as good as it can be to help get as many people to get involved in the union as possible”

“Something different needs to be done in getting people to join – it’s not working”

  • Young people present new challenges, especially for reps from older generations
    • They don’t really understand what unions are
    • We need to tap into the way they use technology

Desire for digital transformation

  • Across the board there was an eagerness about using digital.
  • There was also a feeling that unions have some catching up to do with employers and with other services that members use in their lives.

Putting it into a plan

Finally, we ran a workshop with the team to map out typical user journeys for reps and members, using the personas we had devised and the evidence we had seen from the interviews.

The journeys were mapped on online whiteboard tool Whimsical, adding post its for steps that the user would take and for needs they may have at each point. Below the needs we tried to identify “How Might We?” questions – opportunities to make a change to the journey and address the needs.

This allowed us to list and prioritise possible helpful interventions that the union could make, and areas where it may be worth testing prototype ideas in order to verify whether it is worth pursuing further.

Data management

  • How Might We provide a database for reps/members to access a directory of people associated with the union and their role, new joiners?
  • How Might We make sure reps stay safe on data protection and avoid employer repercussions for using unofficial systems?
  • How Might We develop a system for case management to improve the workflow?


  • How Might We develop an emailing system with templates for reps to use for introductory communication, recruitment and retention?
  • How Might We build a forum/platform for internal communication between reps or members?
  • How Might We manage communication whilst not on duty and track correspondence upon return (avoid duplication)?
  • How Might We improve the communication system in a way that is simple but still secure?
  • How Might We develop a hub where all forms of communication are accessible in the same place (one stop shop)?


  • How Might We build a notification system to alert members about new reps/officers?
  • How Might We create an automation system that informs members when a rep/officer is not reachable? – improving out of office communication and to stop reps feeling overwhelmed by correspondence


  • How Might We signpost a help centre in order to encourage reps to find answers themselves and get advice on their duties?
  • How Might We create a space/hub where prospective and new reps can access information to understand the journey of being a rep, and what support they can get?

Contact system

  • How Might We develop a process that onboards reps to help them feel fully informed and comfortable in their position? – welcomed by site manager, know which members to contact, communication options, notification of new members.
  • How Might We create a system that allocates a lead to manage a relationship with a manager who is across two overlapping areas between two officers?
  • How Might We build a system to contact people as we can’t use Teams (which everyone has moved to) and to avoid looking at their phones?


  • How Might We create a system that helps us stay on top of who has/hasn’t been trained? (with an opportunity to share with local officer so they have a complete)
  • How Might We provide proactive training through Accord instead of leaving it up to reps to request?
  • How Might We empower reps to seek out training or take part in training (rather than waiting for it)?
  • How Might We build a space where reps can do online learning without losing the diary management and sense of community in classroom learning?
  • How Might We build a training system that ensures reps feel confident in their role – combining innovative digital methods and in person sessions?

Time management

  • How Might We build a ticketing system to help reps manage duties?
  • How Might We build a profile tracking system to ensure contacts are not lost: keeping updated rep/member lists as things change, keep on top of staff turnover, and log their contact preferences?


  • How Might We use analytics to track if the member used a recruitment form link, so we can judge the effectiveness of any given route to recruitment?

Next steps

For Accord, next steps could be to test out some of the higher priority interventions they discovered by devising prototype changes to test out with reps. There’s more on prototyping here.

If you’d be interested in how any of your techniques might work for your own union, please do get in touch – we’d love to talk about it.

You might also find the video at the bottom of this page useful – it’s a recent mini-masterclass we had in a December workshop from digital design consultant Audree Fletcher, in how you can plan your own user research work.