Posts tagged ‘co-design’

We feel that design is inherently ethical.

For some years we, like many service designers, have argued that design by its very nature and approach takes place within a strong ethical context. We’ve ensured that what we do when undertaking design is ‘ethical’ and have internal processes in place to support and empower our co-design collaborators and design research targets.

We are primarily ‘public services’ designers. In that sense our work is always bound by the protocols and rules inherent in the public sector. But we feel we need to be clear in the articulation of what ethical means to us. The result is the development of, and sharing here, our ethical framework. This framework relates specifically to the ‘how’ of design research, and how one does design, as opposed to the current important discussions about ethics of the ‘what’ of design and how one judges the impacts of designs to be made.


Co-designing with Young People as a focus for articulating an ethical framework

The impetus for us documenting our existing views and practices in the form of a framework was borne out of a current piece of work. We are in the process of undertaking a project with key academic and public policy collaborators such as the University of Sydney and State government department NSW Health. In the project kick-off we were involved in an interesting conversation about how our work (in this case a project co-designing with young people under the age of 18) is different to “research” and relates to research structures such as formal ethics committees and other academic governance.

The result of these conversations is the development of the DMA Ethical Design Framework, which takes inspiration from our own processes; peers whose judgement and experience we trust; and related industries such as academic research which invests a lot of time in defining these things.

Due to the nature of the current project, and our desire to keep the framework focused, this iteration relates directly to co-designing with young people (ie. those under 18 years).

We have been guided in part in the articulation of this framework by the work of one of our key advisor/collaborators in this space Tim Moore who has always advised that the critical element of working with vulnerable and young people in particular is the sense of safety that needs to be created. We’ve always implicitly done this in practice and it doesn’t just apply to vulnerable and young people, it applies to everyone involved in co-design.

Shout out also to Penny Hagen and other Aotearoa New Zealand designers who have spent a great deal of time thinking (and publishing) about these issues.

Following is an abridged version of the framework which we hope will add to the ongoing discussion.


A sketch after a discussion with Darryl Rhea way back in 2007.

DMA Ethical Design Framework
Design is not research.
Design is exploring as part of a ‘making’ process rather than enquiring in order to purely learn.

As a result the traditional governance procedures for research (for example Ethics Committee Approval) are not generally required for the kind of co-design work that DMA undertakes.

This does not mean however that co-design does not take place within an ethical context. With an absence of a formal, industry-wide ethics guide for co-design, DMA has developed its own framework that draws on both the design and research domains.

As a guide to the difference between design and research, we use the definition developed by designer Penny Hagen:

But it is true that the goals and context of design research – learning about the world in order to design new things into it, has some different (though complementary) goals and accountabilities to other forms of research. While both require a thorough engagement with ethics, traditional ethics committees may not necessarily be the right structures to support that in the case of design research and co-design.

Ethics in (Social Design and Innovation) Practice (2016)

Definition of co-design with young people

This abridged version of the framework is tailored to describe co-design with young people (those under 18) specifically.

For DMA, co-design is defined 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 the case of young people, they are defined as users and experts (of their lived experience) in design projects that are focused on solutions for their age-range cohort. The act of co-design is guided collaboration in order to make, rather than working with ‘targets’ to inquire. For this reason co-design is quite different to research; the ethical considerations when it comes to young people still stand.

As a guide to the context within which design operates in practice and how that is theoretically similar to research with young people, we use Dr. Kathryn Daley’s work on researching with vulnerable people as a guide. Daley states:

Research is a way of improving the lives of the vulnerable as research informs policy and service provision. Research participants need to be protected, but as their right, they also need to be able to participate in research as a way of being heard on matters which affect them. [This article argues that] ethical review of research is so heavily focused on minimising risk that young people’s right to participate in discussion is often overlooked.

The wrongs of protection: Balancing protection and participation in research with marginalised young people (2013)


Our goal in designing with young people is to:

Ensure young people are engaged in the design process in a way that protects them as vulnerable individuals, whilst supporting them to be active participants in the development of solutions with them, for them.


Engagement Principles for Co-Designing with Young People

Our principles for engagement with young people in co-design processes are based on the findings of the Lifehack project in Aotearoa New Zealand. Lifehack was a systems-level intervention in youth mental health and wellbeing and provided a strong articulated principle approach.

With the guiding question “how do we ensure the co-design process provides a safe, supported environment for young co-designers?”, we follow these principles (and deliberately embed the related DMA behaviors and processes):

Autonomy – how does the participant maintain their freedom of choice, right to chose and independence when engaging in this intervention?

  • Voluntary engagement in the process, not nominated participation.
  • Ensuring freedom of choice at the start of the process but also in all individual design activities.

Nonmaleficence – causing no harm to others, above all doing no harm. What if things don’t go right – what are your responsibilities for the wellbeing of people involved with your project?

  • Ensuring participants understand they are not ‘accountable or responsible’ for the design outcome.
  • Check-in and debrief opportunities after all design interactions.

Beneficence – How does your intervention contribute to the wellbeing of the person or people you are serving?

  • Ensuring all participants, regardless of how they present, are actively engaged in activities by providing a mix of activity structures to suit all.
  • Showing direct line of sight between their input and the outcomes.

Justice – treating equals equally and unequals unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences.

  • Respecting difference and having reflective practices that ensure this is catered for.
  • Ensuring participants understand the concept of ‘lived experience’ and how there is no single answer to the design problem.

Fidelity – How do you intend to follow through with what you said you would? What happens if you don’t?

  • Formal hand-over to clients that includes any requests from young people for action.
  • Providing our contact as follow up for any queries after the activities have taken place.

Legal – What is the legislation that you need to be aware of? eg are you working with young people, how are you intending on keeping private information confidential?

  • Following anonymisation and privacy principles for all inputs.
  • Working within legislative boundaries for privacy working with vulnerable people in the States and Territories in which we operate.
  • Being clear about disclosure responsibilities and reporting agencies in the jurisdictions in which we work

Safety – Key points of safety when working with a target group what things will keep them well and safe? How do you enable people to tool-up before engaging in the conversation? How much of your own experience do you intend on sharing, to what ends and why?

  • Keep our relationship professional and driven by structured, planned activities.
  • Running through all agendas, process and approaches as the start of the activity to ensure ability for young people to feel supported and safe.
  • Have access to support contact details in case a participant expresses a support need outside of the project (e.g. health, mental health, bullying, abuse)

Design Research Processes to embed the Principles

The Framework is completed by five areas of specific application of these principles at a project or design research level. These areas are evolved from ‘Understanding Consent in Research Involving Children: the ethical issues. The Handbook for Human Research Ethics Committees and Researchers’. The areas take research ethics insights and apply them to the co-design process.

In these areas of application ALL young people under 18 are considered to be ‘vulnerable’. That is, each young person is afforded all protections regardless of how confidently they present themselves as a matter of course. For DMA ‘vulnerable’ means ‘being under 18’ – not the standard social policy definition of vulnerable in terms of socio-economic or interpersonal circumstances.

Area of Co-design Process Focus
(abridged from ‘Designing Research with Children: FAQs’)

  1. Approval. The processes DMA has in place to ensure approval for participation of young people has been done ethically and overtly.
  2. Engagement. The processes DMA has in place to ensure ‘assent and dissent’ are respected and supported once a process is underway.
  3. Context. The processes DMA has in place to ensure the participants are aware of the broader context of the co-design project.
  4. Relationships. The processes DMA has in place to ensure an unfair power balance or incentive does not exist between the designer and young person, including financial and interpersonal power.
  5. Data (access). The processes DMA has in place to ensure the young person’s data is protected.

In our full internal framework each of these five areas contains a scope, processes and examples.

There is certainly a growing amount of thinking and literature around this topic. And the key elements of our framework presented above are not meant to answer the larger question of whether design itself is ethical – they provide a cornerstone for our own activities in relation to those we co-design with.

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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:

  1. Talking directly with subject matter experts in order to design the workshop with respect to known and shared knowledge.
  2. 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.”
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“We’re asked if we can read, write and count, but what about behave?”

“I’ve had to continually redefine myself.”

“I had to learn about how to plan my day – that meant making sure I had somewhere to go during the day. I had to learn to do that.”


Imagine sharing this kind of vulnerability to groups of community providers, government workers, government bureaucrats, designers, academics and civil society experts. Five former participants of the ACT justice system, willing to share their lived experience, did just that in the first of two all-day workshops exploring justice reinvestment and the potential opportunities for developing a 12-month trial based in the ACT.

When seeking the ‘user voice’ in design, engaging ‘the voice of experience’, understanding the ‘user journey’, hearing from those with ‘lived experience’ – the reality of is you are bringing someone into a process who may not have had a good or even voluntary experience of that system and you’re asking them to share this. Sometimes, you’re asking them to help shape a better system. Most often we do that one-on-one through observation or ethnographically-based interviews. But this work required rapid engagement, rapid shared understanding, rapid development and iteration.
Have we said ‘rapid’ enough?

It is possible to work quickly and to engage all the users and we wanted to use this post to share how a current project committed to ensuring that the lived experience voice was not compromised by time.

Rapid process impacts depth not breadth

The project concerned involves the exploration of potential Justice Reinvestment trials with the ACT Government’s Justice and Community Safety Directorate (JACS), ACTCOSS and the Justice Reform Group (JRG). The outcome of the work will be to identify potential candidates for the trial, with the development of concept briefs to be considered through formal governance frameworks.

The time frames and structure of the service sector mean we’ve had to move quickly and engage large numbers of people and groups from across the justice system (and other related systems like health, housing and community services). As JACS, ACTCOSS and the JRG drive this project they have still insisted on a co-design approach. They know they don’t have the answers on their own.

The challenge of working to an aggressive time frame is things have to happen fast. When moving rapidly there can be pressure to not engage with the actual users of the service, that is a particular pressure when the users are at the complex end of service delivery such as prisoners and past-detainees and their families.

But at the same time, and despite that pressure, if you don’t involve the lived experience of those people in the justice system then it simply isn’t a co-design process.

Critical to this involvement was ACTCOSS and their commitment to co-design and their relationships in the community. We wouldn’t have access to lived experience participants at all without their efforts.

Facilitating the sharing of actual experience

After kicking off the workshop with traditional scene-setting, housekeeping and approach for the day the very first session was hearing from people with experience.

Each lived experience person sat at a table that included a range of public servants, community sector people, corrections officers, social workers and others they came into contact with in their daily lives, and they were ‘interviewed’ by their support or case worker about their experience of the justice system. We prompted what the questions were but they told their story, in their words.

For them, this was not just ‘lived’ experience; they are living it everyday.

It was critical to bring this experience to the table so that participants knew that they weren’t having abstract conversations for the rest of the day – they were talking about outcomes for real people. And those people were going to be working with them for the rest of the day. That also meant that all participants were focused on driving to an outcome for people, grounded in the experience of people who would end up as potential users of the trial.

What it was like for the lived experience participants

Interestingly, we expected our participants to leave after their session – we were told that was possible and worked the design of the workshop around not expecting (or demanding) that they be there. But as it turned out, each of them got so much out of the workshop as they realised that their opinion and experience was valid, and welcomed and necessary, and every single one of them stayed for the whole workshop.

For some preparing for the workshop meant they were given an opportunity to think about their experience from a different perspective. One participant said she’d never thought about ‘support’ before and her thinking helped her realised how important her family and friend’s were, as well as the ‘formal’ programs.

Another said said that she had personally got a lot out of the interview session as she’d “never actually been asked to describe [her] experience before”.

No compromise on user experience, engagement, involvement

We don’t underestimate the courage needed by these participants to front up to the room in the first place, and while we were extremely pleased about the influence they had on proceedings from a co-design process level, we were even more pleased that they got something out of it personally too.

The workshop, the co-design, and the experience could not have been the same without these voices. Designing the process to ensure they were able to be there, able to share, be protected and valued as much as all of the other participants, meant we came a long way during the day, and the second workshop later in July focused on defining the trials will similarly benefit from the voices of lived experience.


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“Co-design is the new buzzword – can you help our members work out what it means?”

And so began our happily evolving journey with a number of community sector organisations such as Youth Coalition of the ACT and ACT Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS), to name just two.

By coincidence, while recently reviewing our website content for a refresh we realised that our desire to be practitioners first was increasingly backed-up by our active role in empowering clients, and potential clients, to understand their role in a co-design process through preserving their own expertise, and drawing on practitioners and the process to facilitate desired outcomes and real change.


Our position on “Co-Design”

Co-design is 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.

Our motivation for engaging with groups like ACTCOSS and YouthCoACT and their member organisations is to provide an environment which prepares them with a view of what co-design means from a very practical point of view. In our case that means how co-design as an approach links with our more defined view of service design – but regardless of your design discipline, we are keen to make the point with the sector that design is, just that, a discipline.

Late last year when we saw that the respected ACT Council of Social Services (ACTCOSS) newsletter had decided to publish an edition with the title: “Co-Design: Improving Policy and Service Development and Implementation Seeing consumers as active participants and assets”. As we’d just been asked by the Youth Coalition of the ACT to present at their annual conference on a similar topic, and knew interest in the topic was at an all time high in the sector, we approached the Council to ask if we could submit an article.

The article was published in December and provides a short summary of the messages and content we delivered in full at the ACT Youth Affairs Conference.

Our preference for transferring knowledge has always been a “theory through practice” model. This has meant creating material for the sector that seeks to support their aims, and to engage in a meaningful way in an attempt to improve the capability of the sector. Consequently, our desire to educate the sector in a collaborative way has been proven to be a welcome approach. Our slideshow from the Youth Coalition Conference gained views on slideshare faster than any other presentation we’ve done. The article for ACTCOSS has received positive feedback from the sector. And the conversations we are having with a range of community peak bodies and service organisations now are based on a more mature understanding of what a co-design approach involves.


The challenge of the community sector

We find that too often the desire for co-designed solutions in the public and community sector leads to processes that are more about consultation than co-design, and rely on generic “design thinking” and business management tools than design discipline. As the funding bodies for community organisations start demanding “co-design” as an approach, we believe empowering organisations with a point of reference for what that actually means ensures they retain their expertise, whilst understanding and having respect for the discipline itself.

We have no doubt the drive for co-design will continue, particularly as funding bodies move more to outcome rather than output measures, and this excites us. We look forward to continuing our relationship with peak bodies like ACTCOSS and YouthCoACT to continue supporting their growing understanding of what co-design is and what it can bring.

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