Stories about the lived experience of Universal Credit

The challenge

Universal Credit puts people at high risk of spiralling into debt and falling into rent arrears. For our social housing partner, One Manchester, about half of their tenants are in rent arrears at any given time. This represents a risk not only to their tenants, but also to their bottom line.

Over 40% of this arrears-related debt is associated with tenants on Universal Credit. As the rollout of Universal Credit continues until 2024, this percentage will continue to rise.

One Manchester wanted to gain a deep understanding of tenants’ lived experience of Universal Credit – to find ways of better supporting their financial wellbeing, rent payment patterns and sustaining of tenancies.

What we did

Ethnographic research

We met with nine One Manchester tenants who had claimed Universal Credit in the last three months to understand their journeys through Universal Credit, their experience of it and how they dealt with it as a financial shock. During these meetups, we would join people at their homes or a place they felt comfortable and over the course of a few hours, we would start to build a picture of their experience of Universal Credit. We used three ethnographic techniques to surface stories.

  • Trust building and storytelling. As interviewers, we would share stories of our personal histories, where we’re from, the people who are part of our life. Then we would ask tenants to hear their stories to build a sense of their background, where they grew up, what they did for work, and the events that led them to their current circumstance being on Universal Credit.
  • Mapping their Universal Credit journey. Digging into the triggers, the process of making a claim, how they managed waiting for their first payment, what steps they’ve taken to cope financially, and they hope to emerge from being on Universal Credit – understanding their personal and work related motivations and how they might achieve them.
  • Playing service recognition games. To understand, out of the service provision that exists, which they know about, and which they actually trust and use to help them through this time of financial shock.
  • Mapping their support network. To understand the family, friends, professionals and organisations that exist in their bubble. Again, looking for lines of existing trust.

The objective of this piece of work was to build understanding of tenants’ experience of Universal Credit across the One Manchester team, creating empathy and awareness of the unique circumstances and triggers that can force people onto Universal Credit – to then segment and tailor product and service interventions to reduce financial shock and rent arrears.


We created a set of nine anonymised tenant stories – one bespoke for each tenant. Physically printed, folded and delivered to team members at One Manchester.

tenant stories

Each foldout story included:
  • An illustration of the tenant, a pseudonym and a pull quote on the front that encapsulated each of their unique stories and experiences.
  • A journey map that visualised their individual experience of claiming Universal Credit – what happened at each step, how they reacted, who supported them and the effect on their financial situation.
  • A summary of their life and background and their experiences over the last few months that led them to this point in their life.

The outcome

One Manchester staff across departments – the rents team, financial inclusion team, wellbeing team, and the senior management team – received a set of the nine tenant stories to read privately.

We came together as a group for an afternoon to have a reflective discussion about each of the stories, the experiences of their tenants and where there are opportunities for One Manchester to play a better role in reducing the financial shock of Universal Credit and support their tenants to sustain their tenancies by avoiding rent arrears.

We used these stories, along with complimentary research methods, such as service provision mapping and an evidence review, to frame opportunities and use as a platform to design and test new ways of supporting tenants.

One of these included testing a Universal Credit survival pack to support tenants through the “5 week wait”.

Interested in running a similar project? Get in touch with Matt –

Related blog: Urgent: Housing associations must act now to design, deliver, and adapt support for their tenants before the longer term impacts of Covid-19 begin to take hold