The cost-of-living crisis is having a huge impact on our members’ lives. Unions are working to help members win better increases to pay, but there could also be opportunities for us to offer members advice, community, news or practical help around other aspects of the situation.
The TUC Digital Lab worked with several trade unions and digital design agency Yalla Cooperative to run a user research project that could help union comms teams make choices around how they could develop this work in a useful way for members and the union.
Questions and assumptions
We started by documenting as well as we could where we had partial knowledge around this topic:
- What role – if any – do members see their union playing in supporting members to deal with the impact of the cost of living crisis?
- What are the actual (digital) pain points people experience in relation to the cost of living crisis and getting support from their union?
- How people will manage their budgets – e.g. what would they cut first? how do they make this decision?
- Are union reps confident talking about this issue? Do they need support?
- Do most young people know what a union is, how it works and how it might support them?
- What do members most value from their unions?
We also documented the key assumptions we were making, in order to try to validate or disprove these in the research:
- People are overworked trying to earn more because of the rising costs and this is making them burnt out – not able to work but struggling with finances
- People have to make sacrifices and have a poor work/life balance due to the cost of living crisis
- The cost of living crisis is impacting people financially which is having a major impact on mental health
- Job security is in jeopardy so people are fearful that they won’t be earning money whilst costs are consistently rising
- Older people are more engaged with their union than young people
- People may consider their union membership as a cost that could be cut if need be, if it isn’t seen as valuable enough.
Taking these into account, we came up with here’s a list of key questions that were important to the research. These are not the questions we should ask members directly, but are what we would look to answer through the types of questions we actually ask:
- How much is the cost of living crisis affecting the union’s members?
- How, if at all, can the union be useful for people in this area?
- What is the best way to communicate with members around cost of living?
- What do our members value most in terms of the membership offer?
- What practical help – beyond increased pay – do users need to support them through the cost of living crisis?
- Will members or non-members think of their union as a place of support when thinking about cost of living crisis?
- Where else will members look for support on the cost of living crisis, do we need to avoid duplication? Promote other resources?
With a broad range of unions represented on the project, we wanted to be clearer about whose experience might be most relevant to different unions. We also wanted to know that we were interviewing people who would ensure a spread across these different key experiences, rather than concentrating experience with a narrower group.
We defined six different persona groups that we wanted to identify different experiences from:
- Low paid, insecure/agency workers – eg hospitality staff
- Low paid permanent workers – eg post delivery staff
- Median paid permanent workers – eg teachers
- Median/higher paid freelance workers – eg broadcast technicians
- Trainees (younger workers still in qualification, with or without families)
Looking at these groups, we identified a number of problems that we assumed they might have as a result of the cost of living crisis, and which we could test in interview.
- “I have to work too many hours in the week in order to earn enough to maintain my lifestyle”
- “I can’t live my life and attend social commitments because I can’t afford to – this is affecting my mental health”
- “I am scared about starting a family because I don’t know if my salary will be enough”
- “I’m trying to save money for my future but with rising costs I’m not able to”
For this phase of research, we conducted user interviews with 13 union members (from across the unions CWU, BECTU and AEP).
The aim was not to gain authoritative answers to defined questions (for which we might rather run larger scale surveys), but rather to generate actionable and testable insights in an area that is newer to us. As a result we undertook a smaller number of deeper interactions with members.
Each interview was 30-45 minutes long, conducted online. The focus of the session was to understand what the members actually need in this area and the type of content that could be created to help people through the crisis.
Interviewees were recruited by the unions by sending an invitation to a list of relevant members (we tried 500 from each union), asking for their help, and offering an incentive of a £25 online shopping voucher as a thank you for their time.
An initial qualifying survey helped us to understand where the people who responded were coming from, and whether they would be a good fit for the personas we had established.
We then approached the most promising looking candidates, asking them to book a time that suited them, using a calendar system that offered available slots and created online call appointments as people picked them. Where we didn’t get enough pick up in particular personas or unions, we approached others who were slightly less close to the profile, to increase numbers for that group.
We devised a standard set of questions for the interviews, so that each interview followed a common format and covered like for like ground, even if the interviewee took parts of it off into a different direction. Questions were very open-ended – giving prompts to the member to give their thoughts in a particular direction.
The questions focused on the members’ behaviour rather than their opinions. There’s always a danger in presenting members with answers that you have already formulated, as people will often agree that they like an idea, when it isn’t really something that they would ever use in the real world. Focusing on what they do or have done in the past, rather than what they think, helps to get more honest reflections on real-life questions.
Interviews started by getting to know the member – asking them about themselves and their normal lives, rather than prompting them to think about more complex topics. This helped establish a rapport at the start, as well helping us better understand where particular comments may be coming from.
We took notes in the interviews, making especially where we felt the interviewee had given a particular piece of insight into the topic.
Synthesis & results
The team then came together again for a synthesis workshop, where we presented and discussed insights from the interviews. We tried to find actions that the unions could take, which would address learning points from the project.
Top recommendations from the interviews
- Members don’t expect the unions to support them with the cost-of-living crisis but would welcome specific support if something existed.
- It is vital that unions are proactive in delivering this content to members rather than waiting for them to search it out on union websites, as they’re not necessarily expecting to get this from the union.
- The tone when communicating cost-of-living information must be proactive and positive:
- Members are tired of the news and it has a negative affect – they are more interested in productive support.
- The current mode of communication through email was largely well received → members like email best, but don’t necessarily want more of them
- Members are tired of the news and it has a negative affect – they are more interested in productive support.
- Union reps and the wider union community are also worth exploring.
- More than advice from the union, participants want a sense of community which in turn can help with issues around the cost-of-living
- Members are unlikely to actively reach out to reps for advice on cost-of-living questions, but giving reps briefing resources signposting support may be useful for them in having proactive conversations.
- An exploration into websites could be beneficial for some unions, to find the most appropriate ways to get this content in front of members who might value it.
- Actual help with the rising costs is far more useful than being told how to budget, as members are mostly confident with this.
- However, certain members in specific roles could benefit from budget tips (sporadic payment) → the audience must be made clear
- Unless the union can provide new and niche content (different to existing forums like Money Saving Expert) then there is no need for them to give advice, content should be focused on practical activity.
Consensus and Themes
The majority of members wouldn’t go to the union for help with this and don’t necessarily expect much from their unions.
Half the members used Money Saving Expert as their main source – they find the information extensive and useful. A quarter of members liked to get their content from doing their own proactive research. The remaining quarter don’t research and prefer to discuss the situation with their friends and family.
💡 But, many would be open to it if there was something practical and proactive from the union that would actually help
It’s really important that the content is positive rather than scary/depressing like the news. Unions also need to be cautious about not giving financial advice, which has particular legal requirements.
💡 Many members would like to be given info on specific areas that will help them to successfully be in control of the situation
- Insightful statistics from union research
- Education on pay negotiation for independent workers
- Guidance on union benefits for specific groups
- Any support, funding and grants available for specific groups
- Testimonials about other people’s experience
Potential actions for unions
- Explore schemes and discounts for members
- The idea of getting practical discounts on day-to-day expenditure (rather than new big ticket items) as a member benefit was popular. That means things like discounts at retailers, or with subscription services that they are likely to already use.
- Select from the sea of discounts out there and categorise them by relevance for specific member groups
- Explore how discount cards could be given to members (a memorable totem tied to the union membership)
- Extract information from the website that is buried deep and share with members directly
- TUC task – evaluate what discount schemes are offered and which are getting good take up
- Active campaign opportunities
- Calendar the moments for these opportunities over the next 6 months that can be communicated out to members and think about ways members can feel engaged with the process in each campaign (so members can visibly see their contribution and feel part of it)
- Think about the union’s mechanisms that would allow members to get involved in campaign opportunities (investigate existing campaign toolkits)
- Real life experiences/case studies/testimonials. Compile a list of questions to find out about people’s experiences and send to people interested, create prompts to help people take action, based on interesting experiences of activists.
- Look into the best ways to share information (eg. data)
- How can you turn data into something that is more engaging, personally relevant, and accessible for people who would normally not be looking for it? (visual data presentation and personalisation)
With many participants, we discussed how much members feel they know about the crisis
A few participants felt they were pretty well informed but actually that it was having a negative effect on them because of the way that information was presented in the media, so they avoid the topic.
Other participants understood that costs were rising but feel in the dark about why it is all happening.
💡 We should avoid overloading members with information on the crisis – content on other topics would be welcome – but, when writing content on the crisis actually informing people on the why and how would be beneficial, rather than showing how bad things currently are: people are well aware.
Email is a popular method of communication and should continue to be used
8 participants said email was the best form of communication → the majority like receiving the newsletters as a way of feeling connected with their union
Newsletters should be specific about who the audience is though – some participants said the content they received was mostly irrelevant to their personal situation.
More content directed to part-time workers would be good, but mostly, making sure it’s clear whether content is not directed towards certain groups would save their time reading through something they can’t make use of.
💡 It is worth making an effort towards good quality and relevant content, but being aware that a greater influx of messages/newsletters might actually turn people off.
💡 Stick with email as main delivery channel, but make sure that emails stand out in the inbox and a more personalised approach could be used when possible.
Having information on the website wasn’t dismissed
Some ideas about having guidance and resources were suggested but quite a few also said they wouldn’t go to the union site themselves unless directed towards something in an email
💡 It could be useful to have step by step guides on the site as long as members are being directed towards it in the newsletter emails
💡 Explore how banks of information could be shown to members/signposted and get the content in front of people
Union reps and community
Most participants wouldn’t go to their union rep about the crisis. Some because they haven’t felt the need or some because they don’t know who their rep is.
A minority said they interact with their rep but haven’t discussed the crisis as they don’t think the rep would be able to offer any advice they can’t get elsewhere.
The idea of being part of a community was seen as a big feature of union membership by a number of interviewees.
This was particularly the case for freelance or independent workers, who viewed the idea of community as a good way to get on. They voiced that they would like inspiration and advice from peers in order to build their own business and income to deal with the crisis.
💡 It seems like an important aspect for everyone – no matter their stance on other issues – is that sense of community and feeling together. Rather than union advice on the crisis that they’ve already heard, creating space for people to connect with each other or sharing stories from members across the network would be valuable.
- Unions who have large groups of freelancers could explore how to support them with their business development
- Investigate which pre-existing networks a union can use and which are being used by members
- Trial member-to-member community offerings (forums, digital spaces, Slack), where members can discuss their issues
- Experimentation in network spaces about whether people can support each other
- Explore social events that can help people feel connected
- Keep an eye out for key conversations in these spaces → being aware of what people are discussing to build up into case studies
Members’ mental health is affected by the crisis
The need to cut ‘disposable’ income takes away from members’ quality of life.
All members we talked to are considering making cuts or already have. But for the most part this is in order to create a buffer for expected rising costs or emergencies.
¾ of participants mentioned having to cut out spending on supposed “disposable income” (socialising, treats, nicer products, activities for children) in order to save money for the rising costs. All of them mentioned how this was impact their mental health.
Having said this, a few participants said they wouldn’t need direct advice on mental health from the union because they get it elsewhere.
💡 Content around boosting people’s quality of life (both with practical or financial support) would be really valued. For many, it feels like they are just surviving, not living at the moment.
Words/phrases used to describe how people are feeling about the situation, even if they feel they’re in a more fortunate position than others, include:
- Out of control
- In the dark
Some members told us they wanted to see ways in which they could have agency in tackling the crisis in some way. Online campaigns were seen as a way of doing this. Members were not expecting online campaigning as being able to change the government’s course, but believed it would make them feel more positive to be able to do something, even small.
💡 A key takeaway: 8 participants were firm on the point that positivity and reassurance would be the most useful way for the union to support members. The tone here is key; doom and gloom should be avoided as much as possible in order to uplift members about how this crisis will pan out. Members don’t want to be reminded of the struggle as it makes their mental health worse. Instead they want to be shown how this situation could improve and what to do in the meantime.
- Is there a role where reps can be involved in being a person to talk to for mental health support? Reps may see signs of mental health risk when dealing with members on other issues. Basic mental health training and resources could be useful to understand difficult situations at home and create a space to talk about these problems
- Explore ways to help people be involved actively, even if small (giving agency to people), encouraging positivity and community. Campaigning is a way of having a positive contribution → giving people agency and sense of control
- Develop better comms around campaigns. Think of ways to better tell the tales of progress. Following up more regularly on campaigns and checking in with people. Reports back, even if not successful, help people feel their engagement is having impact. Bring in testimonials around the campaigns. Have more comms around workers getting pay increases, sharing content that could actively help people but also help with mental health with positive stories.
Many members are cutting back: 5 participants said they have changed grocery shopping habits, only buying the essentials, 7 participants mentioned changes to their energy consumption to save on bills, 9 have cut back on their quality of life to boost their savings. Many to the point where they felt there was now nothing left to cut back on.
Whilst a lot of people are making budgeting changes, many participants mentioned they didn’t need support with budgeting. They feel confident with it or are not the person who manages it in their household.
💡 It was even mentioned that webinars and advice on budgeting would not be helpful. Instead, it was clear that the practical things to help people struggling with their costs would be like: Being shown grants and funding that they were specifically eligible for; Campaigns to raise payment (mainly for employed workers); Education on income maximisation and negotiation (mainly for freelance/independent workers)
Most members were comfortable with the amount of the union membership fee. A few were mostly comfortable with it as they understand the value, but it would be helpful to them if it were less.
- Many unions have already frozen membership fees. Unions could communicate this as it is appreciated when other regular payments are going up
This report was written with Bethany Scott, UX designer with the digital design agency Yalla Cooperative.