Reflections on kickstarting the Social Innovation Challenge user research

Carmen Paputa-Dutu, our Social Innovation Challenge Programme Manager, shares her thoughts on why user research is such an important aspect of designing a new funding opportunity.

Prior to starting with Firstport just over one month ago, I knew little about the wealth of support that social entrepreneurs can access in Scotland. Coming from a third sector digital background, I was always aware of how important social innovation was on the national agenda, but little did I know about the challenges and opportunities faced by individuals with great ideas, who want to make a positive impact on their communities and environment. 

However, this only added to my excitement to start the Social Innovation Challenge user research, as I am coming to this with a fresh set of eyes and plenty of curiosity. And due to my steep initial learning curve, I can empathise with the task facing early-stage social entrepreneurs when they are trying to figure out who to speak to and what support to access – with so much on offer, it can be hard knowing where to begin and how it all fits together!  

Despite my excitement, I was cautious not to jump into this process unprepared. I wanted to make sure that I took the time to understand the sector a bit better, that I was fully briefed on the background to the Social Innovation Competition and that I understood the reasoning behind wanting to redesign the new Challenge. I also wanted to make sure that I thought about the process involved in carrying out user research: what are we trying to achieve? What questions should we be asking? How can findings and knowledge be shared across the organisation? How does this fit with other policies and processes? 

There are two key reasons behind taking some time to think about these questions and developing a robust ResearchOps framework. On the one hand, by establishing a set of processes, we can think about how user research fits within the wider operations of the organisation. Having some iterative guidelines and templates for recruitment, ethics, data analysis and knowledge management means that the culture of user research can become more embedded across teams. Whilst this will not happen overnight, by setting time aside to communicate and collaborate on these processes with others, we can help create distributed ownership and commitment to person-centred design approaches. 

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it is worth thinking about these questions because we want to be considerate of those taking part in the research. We want to ensure that we treat them with respect, responsibility and honesty. That means knowing who to speak to, what questions to ask and when to ask them. It also means listening and taking what is said on board, as best as we can, as well as being transparent about suggestions that are not within our scope. And of course, it is important to build flexibility within the processes, to stay open to new ideas and unexpected outcomes.   

This brings me to where we are at the moment with the Social Innovation Challenge redesign. Building on the experience of the Social Innovation Competition, which ran between 2016 – 2020, the Social Innovation Challenge will be a refreshed programme to support innovative and collaborative social enterprise solutions to challenges faced by individuals, communities and the environment.   

Here at Firstport we want this programme, as well as the entire grant process, to be informed and shaped by real needs, as experienced by aspiring and early-stage social entrepreneurs. We also want to make sure that it fits within the wider innovation funding landscape, complementing the support and resources that exist already. 

To help design the new Challenge, according to our clients’ and stakeholders’ needs, we are carrying out research to learn more about the experiences of accessing and providing support in the social enterprise space. We want to understand:  

  • How to shape the SIC process into a valuable and applicant-centred funding stream, that has the potential to support truly innovative social enterprises take off;   
  • What the criteria should be for innovative solutions to challenges faced by rural communities with regard to carbon mitigation and adaptation. 

This will be a quick and agile process, as we are aiming to launch the new Challenge during the summer. If you would be willing to take part in this research, I will be carrying out interviews during the next couple of months. These should take no longer than one hour and can be arranged flexibly to fit around your other commitments. So, if you would like to share your experience and help us design a new challenge in the process, please get in touch! 

To find out more about taking part in this user research, please contact Carmen at