What do we know?…co-designing with users

thinkpublicHello Holland…
The lovely people at 31Volts have asked me to write a post about thinkpublic’s approach to designing services with users…here goes…

What we do at thinkpublic is co-design.

We work with people to help them make things better. We bring our knowledge of the design process to support service users and providers in the design and implementation of service innovations. We Design ways for people to engage with each other as well as tools to communicate, be creative, design their own solutions. From our experience this is a crucial element in any project. We use our skills as designers to facilitate engagements between the project stake-holders in an informal and constructive way. It is the relationships that are developed here that will enable changes to be implemented and sustained once you leave and the project ends.

Using co-design to engage and work with difficult groups is really valuable, this is particularly evident in the Dott07/Alzheimer100 and the NHS Experience Based Design projects we are currently working on. Working with hard to reach groups requires a lot of thought, there are very good reasons why they are hard to reach and you must be aware of the issues when approaching the project.
With both of these projects we found that there was a lot of great work going on, around these services. This is often the case in the NHS where one of the biggest challenges is sharing good practice. It was vital that we linked all of this together and involved everyone in the design process and support them to co-design solutions together.
Put simply it is all about relationships, the challenge is to get groups of people all doing great work on their own to share their learning, have conversations and begin designing the solutions they, as the experts, want?

thinkpublic at Dott07

I wholeheartedly believe that this is the best way to work, using our design skills to help others design the solution themselves. After all, the people with the real experience of what it is like to work, live and use the particular service are the ones best placed to design it.

There is a lot of talk in the UK about this, particularly around the Dott07 project. It feels like a really exciting time at the moment, with designers playing a major role in the future of public services. What do other people feel about this? It will be great to hear what the feeling is across europe.



At 31Volts we love people, design and innovation. Occasionally we take the time to share our thoughts on this blog. Like what you see? Let's get in touch!

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  • Comment by Gertjan Verstoep

    Hello Paul,

    Thanks for your great blog.

    I have a question about:

    “Working with hard to reach groups requires a lot of thought, there are very good reasons why they are hard to reach and you must be aware of the issues when approaching the project.” -It is all about relationships”…

    -What are the main reasons for target groups to participate?
    -When are the target groups more willing to participate in cocreation?

    Thanks for your input in the Dutch Service Design community.

  • Comment by Paul Thurston

    Hi Gertjan,

    Some great points, thanks for picking up on them…

    ‘What are the main reasons for target groups to participate?’
Engaging with people and getting them involved with a project is often one of the hardest issues we face. This is an issue particularly evident in the English NHS (National Health Service) as there is already a complex structure for patient involvement in service improvement. The problem is that these paths are filled with ‘the same old faces’ which can be easy routes to professional patients but not hard to reach groups – like the obese children you are currently working with. If you want to know what’s really going on then you must engage with these groups and not the easy options.

    Engaging with these groups must be about building relationships, this is a major difference between service and conventional design. Here at thinkpublic we will work with people for quite long periods but even if you are only meeting people once or twice you have to ask yourself ‘what are they getting out of it?” as you can guarantee they are thinking “what’s in it for me?”.

    Providing people with individual projects, design events, skill sharing days, film workshops etc. can be great ways to provide people with useful experiences whilst enabling you to get them thinking about and designing how they see their service.

    If you are inviting people to get involved and give up their time it is always best to make the experience fun!

    At thinkpublic we have found that designing an engagement experience with the people attending is the best way to get people to an event, if they have designed it then they are far more likely to get involved, you will get the best experiences and participation from them and the feeling of involvement is real, not just lip service to targets.

    ‘When are the target groups more willing to participate in cocreation?’
    Creating an open, creative and fun environment is essential when co-deisgning with people, breaking down hierarchal structures and often complex relationships between stake-holders. By creating this environment you can begin to get people working together, sharing their experiences and designing solutions.

    A great example of this is the photo associated with this post, from a co-design event we ran in Newcastle recently. We gave 6 coloured balloons to everyone as they entered the event, these balloons were used for voting on the issues they personally wanted to focus on. As well as being a fun and engaging way to get people voting and thinking about the issues it also had the effect of making everyone look a bit silly…a great leveler!

  • Comment by Ivo

    I think these are two very interesting questions. I think I approach engagement from a slightly different angle to Paul: Though it’s very important to create equal access and a creative environment, I think the key to engagement is that you are providing the people that you engage with a real opportunity to influence the future of your project or the issue or subject matter that your project is dealing with.

    “-What are the main reasons for target groups to participate?”
    People engage because they care about an issue and they see the opportunity to do something about it. The process of engagement therefore should be focused on providing this opportunity for change in the most direct and accessible way.

    “-When are the target groups more willing to participate in cocreation?”
    Target groups are more willing to participate the more they feel that their input will make a difference. Research has shown that people do not participate when they feel that they won’t be listened to or that nothing will change as a result of their participation, this is why our government has failed so miserably to increase public participation in policy-making despite numerous strategies.

    Successful engagement provides people with what they want; a direct way of inputting their opinion on a subject they care about. Focusing on, and being able to describe, the opportunity that you are providing your target group is therefore the basis of good engagement.

31Volts [Service Design]