We’ve been busy at DMA with some amazing projects over the past couple of months. This period has seen us covering topics as wide ranging as domestic violence, homelessness, biosecurity and ICT as service.
The one thing the projects have had in common is the label and intent of ‘co-design’.
We usually don’t use the term ‘co-design’. We do service design, we collaborate, iterate, navigate, all the -ates! We help work out how things are, how things could and should change, and then we define and describe that change. But ‘co-design’ as a term is hot (or, at least, back). For the most part, when we’re approached for some co-design it’s totally appropriate, but we’ve definitely been learning some new lessons and firming up some truths.
Lesson 1: A workshop alone is not co-design
For us the process of design involves deep research (desk and in the field), observation, collaboration, analysis and synthesis. A technique within collaboration is developing and delivering a workshop, but the workshop itself, on its own, is not co-design.
We’ve been faced with requests for co-design processes where we, as the design leads, have had no opportunity to do background research, no influence over attendees, and been required to prepare ‘co-design templates’ for use but no further involvement – that is not ‘co-design’. It disrespects the discipline, but worse, it disrespects the people you want to co-design with; from recipient to deliverer.
In fact, when offered a project like this recently, we said no.
Luckily with our clients, and our appreciation of the constraints of community organisations and some Departments, when faced with only limited opportunity to do background research and a requirement of a workshop-only approach we’ve been able to set the activity to work optimally by:
- Talking directly with subject matter experts in order to design the workshop with respect to known and shared knowledge.
- Describe to the client the types of people who NEED to be invited to make a working session buzz.
The resulting and hard-earned “we trust you” in the development of material means we’ve pulled off some amazing (but tight) co-design processes. It can be done lean, but the workshop isn’t enough.
That brings us to our next lesson…
Lesson 2: Co-design must be a led process
We define co-design as:
The process of deliberately engaging users of the system, deliverers of services and other experts, being led by experts such as designers, to actively understand, explore and ultimately change a system together.
In practice what this means is that just because you have an activity to elicit collaborative development of services as a designer, you do more than facilitate. You lead. You challenge. You push. You set up design activities that take the pressure off participants to begin with a blank page, and instead start with a framework for people to collaboratively fill in as a prompt for conversation.
People are there because they know their stuff or have lived experience, that means designers must provide the freedom to explore with focus, within intent.
The wonderful result we’ve experienced is skeptics of the process turning around, quiet voices turning vocal, and insight and content developing that has moved change agents from discussion to action.
But that doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and sunshine…
Lesson 3: Sometimes empathy means you just have to shut up
We recently ran a series of workshops to explore the service needs and expectations of a number of different cultural groups and demographic cohorts in identified geographic areas of need. These have had to be repeatable and scalable and result in content that turned into practical information. Two workshops stand out where with all the background research, preparation of the event for participants, and all the ‘design professionalism’ in the world meant almost nothing when faced with very justifiably angry people – not with us personally, but with the agent we represented, and the system they are, by their reckoning, ‘forced’ to operate under.
As much as we wanted the participants to “just work with us to get what we needed for our design-led process”, we realised we had to just shut up. Just listen and make sure to listen to understand, not to get ready to respond.
What we were doing made sense, and worked for 90% of the audiences we’d engaged, but design is about people, and experiences, and empathy. And sometimes letting people just ‘be’ is important in terms of creating community (not just design outcomes).
Related to understanding before responding is…
Lesson 4: Analysing and creating are different processes
So don’t try and do them at the same time. This especially matters when you’re dealing with multiple projects, not to mention multiple topics.
Analysis gives you focus. You must develop understanding of what you have before moving too quickly to what it means. It helps the people you’re co-designing with. It helps to be more effective when multiple artefacts for multiple audiences are required. That means sometimes you have to demand this time and focus of the client, of participants in a workshop.
When you do this, then you can really create something together.
Which brings us to our final lesson…
Lesson 5: There is no co-design without people
No matter how ideal or not a co-design process is, they don’t happen at all without agencies willing to think differently, and uncover possibility. In all five projects, the agencies we worked with were willing to open up their traditional decision-making process to the sometimes difficult and confronting process of co-design (even when they asked for it).
And for every great agency you need willing participants. To get true lived experience of service systems and deep insights about service delivery, you need experienced and willing service deliverers and users. And this means taking them away from their day jobs. It was a shock for us to realise that many of the participants in our processes not only had to do the day job but were also called upon to go to so many co-design activities some barely have time to do their work; so you need to respect that.
Postscript: participants, service delivers and agency representatives have sought us out to express their appreciation of the co-design experience and it makes it all worthwhile:
- “I truly believe that for the first time we have been able to talk about what’s important in a way that embraces the expertise and experiences of the sector. Thank you for designing a process that has enabled us to talk about the important things in a non-threatening way.”
- “[the] design work is really connected to the experience of people and workers. It matters, and it makes a difference.”
- “[the experience was] very genuine, and created a space for the sector to have conversation that it doesn’t always have – and it was good being pushed by knowledgeable outsiders.”