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From industrial placement to user researcher

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Matt Smith sitting on a sofa in front of a coloured shelf unitHello, I’m Matt, a user researcher based in HMRC’s Newcastle Digital Hub.

In this blog, I will tell you about my career journey. I was an uncertain university undergraduate who joined the HMRC industrial placement programme. Now, I am a confident IT professional with an exciting career ahead.

Time at university

Thinking back to my second year at university, I had no real idea about the type of career I wanted to pursue or the area I wanted to focus on. The modules in my degree covered a wide range of subject areas within computing, and I found I struggled to specialise in any one area of study.

I was really enjoying university but was only achieving second class grades, averaging around 60 per cent in modules. At this stage, I was content with these results and was happy to pass modules without pushing myself to achieve higher.

But, a turning point came at the end of my second year, when I was introduced to the idea of taking an industrial placement.

Industrial placement at HMRC

This meant taking a year out before my final year at university to work in the real world. It appealed to me as an opportunity to explore my options and gain industry experience in the process (not to mention earning a full-time salary too!)

HMRC’s industrial placement scheme stood out to me because of the opportunity it offered to actually work on large projects and the chance to make a difference, rather than just stand by and watch.

Also, they were advertising the role of user research; something I hadn’t seen elsewhere and had little or no experience of, but it sparked an interest in me. I applied and was successful.

Starting work as a user researcher was daunting but after being introduced to the workplace culture and being made to feel a valuable part of the HMRC community, I began to grow in confidence. Any initial nerves I had quickly disappeared.

Matt Smith at work with other users researcherThrough my work, I started to develop specialist skills: from designing and conducting user research to analysing and presenting findings to teams and stakeholders. I was given the opportunity to work with experienced professionals on real projects. On top of this, I was gaining valuable knowledge of user research on HMRC’s digital services. I now had a job role to focus on and had a clear vision for my career path, which is something I didn't have before.

Undertaking a placement at HMRC gave me a real insight into life in the workplace of a large organisation and opened my eyes to what is required in order to achieve in work.

I experienced several different job roles, such as content design and project management, and I was able to develop a good understanding of how to work in an agile environment. This helped to identify the areas of work that suited me and my skills best.

It also provided me with a greater appetite for success and the motivation to achieve the highest grades possible when returning to complete my degree.

Back at university

Thanks to my placement, when I got back to university my academic performance improved. I was able to incorporate elements of user research into my final year project and the industry experience helped when communicating with others.

I’m proud to say I left university with a first-class honours degree. I achieved an average of 80 per cent overall in final year modules: a significant improvement in comparison to 60 per cent in my second year! Furthermore, I left with a diverse set of skills and industry experience, putting me in a strong position when applying for jobs.

Returning to HMRC

Towards the end of my studies, I began to search for user research jobs as I was keen to use the skills I had developed during my placement which gave me an advantage over the potential competition. By this point I had a real interest and passion for user research and was keen to get started as soon as I graduated.

I chose to apply for a permanent position at HMRC as a user researcher, largely due to the fact I’d had such a good experience whilst on placement. User research plays an important part in the product life cycle of a digital service at HMRC, and I wanted to rejoin the ever-growing research community I’d been a part of.

Matt Smith at work with other users researcher

HMRC offers a great work-life balance, including social activities and events that bring the community closer together. A great example of this is the HMRC user research conference. This is an annual event where there is the opportunity to meet other researchers, share knowledge and learn from their experiences.

There are also many training opportunities that can help your development. I attended the user research fundamentals training course while on placement. It gave me a great understanding of how to plan, execute and analyse user research in line with Government Design Service (GDS) standards.

Future plans

Now that I‘m settled into life at HMRC, I plan to broaden my skills and experience in user research and continue enjoying being a valuable part of the community.

To further develop my expertise, I would like to work with users who have access needs and people who require support to use digital services. I am aiming to make an impact on the user research community at HMRC, while helping to develop and continuously improve HMRC’s digital services, ensuring they are inclusive for everyone.

I look forward to seeing what the future holds.

Matt Smith, User Researcher

Apply now

If you're currently studying towards an IT, computer science, design/web design, business or psychology degree have you considered doing an HMRC Industrial Placement? Applications to join us in September 2020 are open from now until 2 March 2020.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Dee Johannessen posted on

    Well done Matt! I think its a great idea that HMRC offer these placements. It's useful to both yourself as you have said and HMRC. Technology has advanced so much and its good to know it's in safe hands like yourself and fellow workers! Keep up the good work and follow that dream. HMRC is proud of you!