[What is it you actually do?] Ben Cubbon

‘What is it you actually do?’ is a series of blogpost ‘interviews’ that ask interesting folk working on digital products in and around public service the age old question — ‘what is it you actually do?’. Shamelessly copying from Lifehacker’s ‘How I work’ series and ‘The Set Up’ blog.

Who are you and what do you do and where?

I’m Ben Cubbon, a northerner and some say Yorkshire’s answer to Tin-Tin. I’m a Senior User Researcher at HM Courts and Tribunals Service, an agency of MOJ. Our main digs are in Westminster, I’m there a couple of days a week but I now live in Cardiff. When I’m not in London I’m either working from my office in a pokey cupboard in the house or out in the field with some users.

What software do you use day to day?

Pretty bog standard set up. I use a mixture of Inbox and Slack for communicating. Todoist to keep me on top of things, however I very quickly forget to check in with it and have a analog post-it style to do list at my desk. I surf the web on Chrome. I draft write and note-take in Evernote and publish stuff on Medium. Google Drive is my vault of workings and artefacts. I start off most of my work in Google docs/slides, all about the collaboration feature, haven’t lived until you’ve simultaneously edited a Google doc with an anonymous chimpanzee. Spotify for blocking out noise or psyching yourself up through a late night.

Three major aspects to my work data collection, analysis and dissemination. For data collection I’m usually in a lab so I’m well looked after, however I’ve got a voice recorder and iPhone for research out in the wild. I had played with this set-up, used a go-pro but didn’t feel like it provided me anything extra. So if I’m home interviewing it’s voice recorder on table, iPhone on a little clip stand and away we go. This is still a pretty simple set-up, it’s reliable, cheap but does nothing to help analysis down the way. I have just come across Cassette, a real-time text to transcription app. Yet to play with it but looks promising. For analysis I’m completely analog. Again played with a couple of tools but found that they constricted the analysis as you became more worried with fitting your analysis into how the tool worked.

Dissemination, again post-its and Sharpies. Don’t want to be constrained by what a tool can do. But I digitise these findings in Keynote, it’s the tool that allows me to most closely replicate analog journeys and models that I create through analysis. I work in two different teams. In the research team we Slack to talk, Trello to organise and Google drive for documents and workings. In my product team the only difference is the use of Confluence and Jira. Oh and BT Conference calls, that’s a software right. Thankfully I’ve now grown an immunity to the hold music.

What is your favourite stationery?

For writing on it’s a plain notebook, I don’t have favourite go-to note book I’m pretty frivolous when it comes to note books. i don’t think I’ve ever bought 2 of the same ones. Coupled with this is post-its, the proper ones, needs to be the bright neon colours and a mix of original squares and rectangles. Thrown into this is brown paper for getting user journeys out. I have 3 weapons of choice for writing with; Sharpies…because, Pentel sign pens good writers, softer than sharpies and they’ve got a good grey for sketching idea out and Pilot V5’s for bulk writing.

What do you love/hate most about your job?


Love talking to people outside of Government, the citizens of the UK, our users whose needs we must meet. I get to meet some really fascinating people. People with real stories to tell. People who have a real need only the Government can meet. I feel privileged that people choose to share their stories, some of which are personal. Without these people we wouldn’t be able to truly transform Government. Defining problems through research is another highlight. Usually teams, including myself have an idea of what we think is going on or an idea of something we could do to change a service. Spending concerted effort to think through this problem, conduct research, sketch out what we’ve found is rewarding. Especially when you get a whole team with different disciplines involved.


The R word…reports — arrggghhhhhhhh!!! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a write up. Love a post-it + sharpie output of the research we’ve done, digitising the research into a slide deck, cool. But writing a full report, of the whole research process we’ve gone on does no help for anyone. Think reading them is hard work, try writing one.

How did you become a user research designer working in gov?

I studied for a Psychology and Criminology degree, which took me straight into a Forensic and Investigative Psychology Master’s. In my head at the time I was training to be the real life Cracker. Instead I started designing questionnaires for Office for National Statistics (ONS). There we conducted cognitive interviewing, a type of usability testing, of our question designs to ensure people could understand the questions and that consistent answers would be given. This was my first introduction to testing out ideas with users. From there I took on the role as the first User Researcher at ONS working primarily on the Data Collection project to improve the service in how we collected data.

How do you manage your backlog (i.e. cards on a wall, Jira, Trello, Sprintly..)?

Depends on the team I’m with and the purpose of the work. Pretty adaptable to using analog systems, through to Trello and Jira. User Research doesn’t really require a complex method of managing the work, the steps you go through are very consistent, so Jira is overkill. If I’m managing a team Trello is rolled out, researchers should be out of the office a fair bit so having a digital board is a must and commenting on the tasks helps the research and insights move forward.

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