The Co-Design Toolkit: 4 Key Principles for Success

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May 18, 2024

Co-design, or the practice of involving users in the design process of new products and services, has become somewhat of a hot topic. Likely because the method aligns with today's push towards more user-centered and empathetic frameworks in tech—though we can only guess how much its association with group brainstorming sessions with sticky notes on Miro plays a role in its popularity.

Those who have given co-design a shot know that it comes with its challenges. For example, creating group sessions that consider the unique experiences of all participants and navigating potentially conflicting opinions. Or, balancing the expertise that comes with lived experience with the expertise held by designers or developers to create a service that is both relatable and realistic. 

Though we consider it a method with hurdles, we recognize that directly involving the users can help avoid confirmation bias. Often, product designers, developers or leaders already have their own ideas of how a product will solve user needs or challenges. However, these ideas are frequently based on assumptions that should be verified with the end users, thus making co-design an integral part of designing helpful and accessible products. 

Co-Designing at TDL

We, therefore, think of co-design as an especially important part of designing support services where the goal is to create impactful solutions that meet the actual needs of end-users who need it most. 

In this article, we discuss 4 key learnings coming out of one of our projects involving the evidence-based design work for Wellness Together Canada—one of the Canadian government’s responses to the increasing demand for accessible mental health support coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Behavioral Science, Democratized

We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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1. Prioritization: focusing on doing it right, rather than right away

In this case, what does doing it right mean? For one, it meant doing underserved populations justice while balancing the inevitable budget and time constraints. It also meant learning that when co-designing with indigenous people in Canada, for example, you could be engaging with over 200+ sovereign nations, all with unique languages, rituals, preferences… you get the idea. 

But of course, the potential complexity of engagement work may lead organizations who want to do it right to delay doing it indefinitely. So what is the solution? For one, prioritization. Deciding on a starting point such as one particular demographic and educating ourselves on the community in all of its complexity. To support this work we recommend leveraging experts, and this brings us to our next point.

2. Leveraging Expertise: planning the sessions for the target audience with the target audience

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Proper Co-Design doesn’t have to start at the participant engagement level, but rather at the engagement planning level. This means pulling in experts who can provide guidance on how to prioritize the engagement work as well as the recruitment and engagement approach for the target audience. 

Depending on available budgets, this could take the form of working with consultants who already have a strong and authentic relationship with your target population. Similarly, working with community advocates who offer feedback on recruitment, session plans, and protocols can be a great way to conduct proper engagement work while respecting smaller budgets. And speaking of protocols, there is a lot more to consider than just participant engagement.

3. Keeping it Real(istic): planning for goals and bandwidth rather than how much we might be able to squeeze in

There seems to be this idea that an effective co-design session is filled with team activities and colorful tools. However, chances are that not all of your participants have used your chosen co-work tool before.  Meaning time, effort and attention need to be spent teaching how to interact with the platform. Therefore the rule of thumb is that unless a specific objective requires the use of such a tool, skipping it may be the way to go. Rather, focusing on simple visualizations and getting a team member to take live notes can help participants focus on engaging and following the discussion.

4. Designing for Safety: creating a safe session for the participants and moderators

The nature of group sessions means that you may find yourself in a ‘room’ full of strangers with contrasting backgrounds and opinions. That much is clear. But depending on the nature of the product, additional safety precautions may have to be considered. 

Discussing people’s mental health outside of a clinical setting requires appropriate pre-session communication such as disclaimers about the sessions’ content and nature. Nobody should be asking themselves if they are actually attending a group therapy session or giving feedback about their color preferences for a crisis button. 

There is always a risk that a participant may encounter a triggering topic or person. The resulting reaction may also present an emotionally challenging situation to handle for the moderators. Therefore, we recommend safety precautions like offering a breakout room to participants if they feel overwhelmed. We also recommend providing training for moderators by mental health experts and support mental health resources to both participants and moderators post-session. The idea is to not leave anyone alone with overwhelming feelings once the Zoom session concludes.

But Wait, There’s More

Though we’ve learned a lot, the takeaways above certainly aren't exhaustive. Engagement work is a never-ending learning quest, requiring open-mindedness. We need to constantly challenge our own assumptions and look for common ground where there seemingly is little. Joining community advocate-led events can be a great place to start in understanding the needs of the community you are ultimately trying to cater to. However, if you are completely new to co-design, we are happy to start this conversation with you here! 

About the Author

Laura Detter

Laura Detter

Laura Detter is a user-centred researcher and designer with a passion for applied behavioural science. Before joining The Decision Lab she worked at Mercury Labs in London providing UX based consulting services for digital products and services. Since moving to Montreal Laura has worked at Ubisoft’s User Research Lab, conducting UX research to enhance Ubisoft’s AAA games including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

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