How can prototyping shape policy?

Improving the experience of landlords and tenants in the private rented sector through prototyping.

Snook worked with Policy Lab to unpick the largest problems that current landlords’ and tenants’ face. We co-designed potential solutions with end users, policy makers and civil servants, and brought them to life through prototyping. These were then put into the hands of the end user for feedback and iteration.

Embedding human-centered design

Policy Lab are a team of policy makers, designers and researchers who are on a mission to bring human-centered design to departments across the civil service. The team design services to improve citizens experience, using data analytics and new digital tools.

Snook supported Policy Lab to build design capacity within the Cabinet Office by demonstrating the service design approach to creating prototypes and usability testing, we helped policy makers see what’s possible when working with citizens to frame policy objectives.

Our broken housing market

In February 2017, The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s MHCLG (formerly the Department for Communities and Local Government) published a White Paper on ‘fixing our broken housing market’ this went out for consultation and was concluded in March 2018. It laid out the government’s plans to reform the housing market and increase the supply of new homes in England. The MHCLG approached Policy Lab and asked them to help them explore what could be done to improve landlords’ and tenants’ experiences.

Building a depth of understanding

Snook and Policy Lab worked as a team to build on previous ethnographic research that had been undertaken to understand the needs of current landlords and tenants. Through these interviews that were filmed in people’s homes across England we uncovered a range of needs.  

Here is what we found out:

  • Tenants are often anxious due to a lack of home security. Tenants sometimes feel forced to ‘live in the moment’, having to consider their short-term future due to short term rental agreements.
  • Both landlords and tenants want fair agreements. Tenants think landlords have the power, landlords think tenants have the power. Both users groups want an equal playing field.
  • There is a lack of clarity around rights and responsibilities. Often landlords and tenants are not aware of what they might be entitled to and what they legally should be providing.  

Using insights in ideation

It is important that designers, policy makers and service managers feel connected with the people that they are designing for. We are not our users!  

One way of ensuring that you design for your end users and not for yourself is by creating personas. Personas are fictional characters that are an amalgamation of insights from a particular user group.

We held a co-design workshop with civil servants and wider stakeholders and used personas of landlords and tenants in England to stay focused and ensure we were meeting user needs. The workshop focused on creating ways to improve the current problems that many landlords and renters face. To bring the research alive, we also played interviews from the ethnographic research.

The main problem areas that were identified in the workshop were, how might we:

  • Improve landlord and tenant communication
  • Support good landlords
  • Make landlords aware of and deliver on their repair and upkeep responsibilities
  • Improve stability and certainty within the sector
  • Create further tenant support
  • Improve the experience for families in the Private Rented Sector
  • Create reliable online information


Using prototypes to ask questions

At Snook we believe that prototypes are a useful way to ask further questions. We always recommend prototyping at early stages of concept development.

Based on the above research findings, we created prototypes to elicit further insights from landlords and tenants. The prototypes ranged from campaigns to improve an understanding of rights and responsibilities across the sector, to fairer rental standard agreements that helped tenants and landlords to mutually agree on communication methods and preferences.

We ran a usability testing workshop with Policy Lab and the wider civil service using the prototypes. The purpose of the workshop was to encourage teams to plan out how they might conduct early stage usability testing with landlords and tenants. for each prototype. We asked them to get into groups of three and act out how the interaction might work. One person was the interviewer, one was the note taker and one was the landlord or tenant. Asking people to act out usability testing highlights the details that you need to think about to make the participant comfortable in order to gather good quality insights.

We then visited over 60 landlords, tenants, citizens advisors and letting agents in Birmingham, Manchester, Wigan, York and London to do usability testing. We talked them through the prototypes, and encouraged them to use, read and interact with them so that we could understand how they might work in a real life context. Throughout this research, the team started to understand what prototypes would have the most impact in the sector and what aspects of the prototypes needed further iteration.


Capturing insights

It can be hard to consolidate research findings across a large team in a quick and efficient way. At Snook we look to create innovative ways to synthesise research that suit individual teams and contexts.

As different members of the team were involved in the research at various stages, it was important to ensure that all of the insights were brought together. We ran a synthesis session so that we could identify common themes and ideas. To share insights, the lead researcher from each interview was asked to embody their participant and bring their findings into the “spotlight”. By reiterating the main points and quotes that they had noted down, the team were able to probe for further information where necessary and capture key themes across all participants. This approach ensured that we shared key insights in an engaging way and identified prototype iterations that needed to be made.

Influencing policy design

Working with stakeholders, we created ‘service blueprints for two potential interventions. This enabled us to visualise what policy, partnership and design decisions would be key to the roll out of these potential services.

Whilst it is hard to pinpoint which policies and upcoming reforms of consultations we may have influenced, we believe that the learnings from this project have built capacity within departments across government. Insights and prototypes are currently being reviewed by The MHCLG.

We see a potential for further development of innovative policies in this space. Policy Lab are working towards this.


  • The process fed into policy development in MHCLG on how to support landlords and tenants. The policy team are still in an early stage of policy development, but we know that our work centred their thinking around the citizen's experience - feeding in what would, or wouldn't work, for those living and renting homes in the sector.

    Sanjan Sabherwal, Policy Lab
  • The Snook team were quick to adapt to the PRS project, with Charley and Maya taking over seamlessly from Robin. Both ran workshops confidently in front of senior stakeholders and sensitively with members of the public. The final blueprints were accessible to all and were designed to a high standard.
    Sanjan Sabherwal, Policy Lab

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