This post is the first in a three part series on bringing audiences into the design process. In this first part, I focus on the ideas that sit behind co-design and the benefits of working this way. Part two will explore stories of projects that have used the principles of co-design to produce a great product or improved service outcomes. Part three will focus on useful, actionable tips on how you can design with your users by following this method.

Have you ever wondered why it’s a good idea to design with your ‘user’? The term ‘user’ is used here broadly to include those who will engage with the product or service that results from the design process. I don’t mean designing with the user in mind, but really, truly with them, as part of the design process in a genuine way. By with them, I mean not just a chat or two at the beginning, but through a series of collaborative workshops, conversations and interviews. Ideally this would happen all the way through the design process as the design concept iterates.

Sometimes the cultural context might be unknown or even baffling, or information might be hidden from an ‘outsider’.

It’s usually quite difficult for a designer or team of designers to deeply understand the context or purpose of every design decision undertaken. In this post, ‘designer’ includes those who design in either the areas of product or service design. Sometimes the cultural context might be unknown or even baffling, or information might be hidden from an ‘outsider’, such as the designer. So designers need to involve those who face the problem or experience in order to see all the complexity. This way of working is often called ‘co-design’ and sometimes ‘participatory design’, a process originating from Scandinavia in the 1970s.

The idea of bringing users into the design process is about mindset and attitude. This way of working is fundamentally about people.

What’s the benefit of designing with our intended audiences?

Well, according to Ingrid Burkett, a social design fellow working in Australia, one major benefit is the ability to achieve a greater impact with the end result.

The thinking goes like this: if you bring your user into the design process, you create a genuine sense of connection with the project, and hopefully a strong sense of belonging or even, if you’re very lucky, a feeling of ownership. This process acts to empower that person. It gives them a sense of authority and control. It opens their eyes and builds awareness about their choices, decision-making, and actions. They see that they are in the centre of the design picture, not just someone who is being designed for by another who does not fully understand their context. It changes the relationship the user has with the project in a fundamentally important way. And significantly, it has a transformational potential for the design outcome because of the power users have in the process, as illustrated through this study on wellbeing.

The idea of bringing users into the design process is about mindset and attitude. This way of working is fundamentally about people. It’s about designing with people, not for them.

Designing with your user means that assumptions are less likely to be made about how they (your user) might see things, or behaviours you expect them to exhibit. These are things that those too familiar with the design environment are often blind to see. Some choose to design in this way at the beginning of the project, while others bring their users all the way through the design process. The project will often shape what might be possible. But bringing your user with you is more than a nice idea: it can fundamentally change the way design outcome is experienced.

Read part two of this series here.

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