Co-Design Done Right

Co-design has been around for decades, but it has become increasingly popular in the last 5-10 years. Here are some important points to consider regarding its implementation.
Design and UX article: Co-Design Done Right

Co-design has been around for decades, but it has become increasingly popular in the last 5-10 years - with the rise of the "design thinking" agency. This is inspired by the success of companies like IDEO.

Whenever I see examples of "co-design" it's almost always participatory design. Instead of trying to distinguish between the two, I'll explain and refer to the concept and technique solely as co-design. A less frequently used term is "co-creation" although that appears to have been claimed by a certain shampoo brand!

With the growing momentum of digital service transformation in government, techniques such as co-design are being adopted and recommended by designers, creative agencies and service delivery teams. This is as a way of trying to ensure that services meet the needs and expectations of users, by incorporating them into the design process.

Co-design is sexy. It makes great video footage for agencies; a room filled with clients, stakeholders, their customers, users and design facilitators milling around with walls covered in colourful sticky notes - talking, collaborating, thrashing out ideas and innovating.

It can be a useful mechanism for eliciting great ideas and feedback. That said, I want to caution service delivery and design teams about the risks and dangers of co-design as it becomes more commonplace. I want to see it used properly and safely so that it doesn't backfire or result in poor service design and get a bad reputation.

Tips on facilitating co-design

Co-design activities and workshops should never be organised without an objective in mind. Are you in the exploratory stage of a project or the generative design stage? If you're in the initial exploratory stage, then co-design is a tool for research not design.

In the exploratory stage of a project, you are seeking to understand the challenges and pain points, to empathise with users and service delivery personnel, and get deep into the process and service performance. In this scenario you don't want want problems.

In the generative ideation and divergent design stage you have already framed the challenge and should ensure that co-design participants are cognisant of those design parameters to constrain the scope of design discussions and suggested solutions.

In both these situations you should use structured or semi-structured activities and games. Gamestorming by Gray, Brown and Macanufo (published 2010 by O'Reilly Media) has some really good tools for this to inspire creative thinking, tease apart problems and help designers, users and service delivery teams to collaborate fully and meaningfully.

The classic co-design workshop with lots of conversation, presentations and noise favour extroverted personality types. So from the outset you risk excluding half of your stakeholders and users.

Another problem is expectations. If you don't make clear the purpose of a co-design activity and how the outcomes and insights will be used, then you risk getting stakeholders and users off-side when they feel ignored and that their ideas were thrown in the bin.

Co-design should make people feel included. A poorly-run co-design activity may achieve the complete opposite and make it harder to get people's buy-in later when trying to deploy re-designed services.

Many people will come into a co-design workshop with ideas, things that have been kicking around in their heads for months or years and they see it as an opportunity to push their ideas. Figure out how to elicit the nugget of insight and focus on tactfully recycling and incorporating that into more mainstream thinking without losing that person. Sometimes those closely-held ideas that have been cooking for a long time are really good ... but often they're also just one person's opinion, and the intent of co-design is to ensure that everyone designs the solution, not just the service designers or the service delivery team or the customers and users. It's a team effort.

That brings me to the another perceived problem with co-design, and one which I'm less concerned with. Some people see co-design as designers relegating the responsibility for successful design to stakeholders and customers. If you get everyone in a room and expect them to leave their roles and qualifications at the door then yes it will be a problem. What you want is for designers to bring their design facilitation expertise, stakeholders to bring their business domain knowledge, and users to bring their experiences and needs.

Give people the tools to contribute what they know or do best to the design it knowledge, experience or skills. Ensure that your designs can design, stakeholders can share and record their knowledge and ideas and users can feel heard.

My final point on co-design is that while it's a useful technique for making people feel engaged and incorporated into the design process it's imperative that you demonstrate you have listened to everyone and that all the information and ideas generated will be used and referred to. All the ideas can't be implemented, but make sure you show what happened after the workshop or co-design program of consultation.

Co-design should not just be a token gesture of engagement. Respect the participants and be prepared to explain how their ideas and insights shaped the direction of the design.

If this all feels like too much to handle, then perhaps you might be more comfortable with other research and design techniques such as contextual inquiry, stakeholder interviews, surveys and user testing with prototypes.


The Author

Nathanael Coyne

User Centred Design Specialist