Don't confuse co-design with discovery research

UNSW Home Mods Robin&Paul Hand Held Shower.jpg

Co-design is much in vogue worldwide in product, service and environment design. It's a strategy for innovation. The power of the crowd has long been recognised, and engaging end-users in any design process seems like a no-brainer if you want to design it according to their needs. 

I recently attended a talk on ‘Co-Design of Intergenerational Spaces’ by Rasmus Frisk and Thomas Aarup Due from arki_lab who are the Danish architectural firm who’ve come up with some great urban design solutions creating age-integrated spaces… aged-care spaces that intersect with pre-school care spaces. arki_lab uses a participatory design approach. Participatory design or co-design actively involves stakeholders; end-users, customers, community members, employees, partners etc., in the design process to help ensure the result meets their needs and is usable. 

arki_lab and other practitioners of co-design techniques will convene a group of people they’re designing for and bring them into the design process. This way they’re not just hearing their opinions, they’re empowering them to play an active role in making design decisions. Co-design practitioners devise all kinds of techniques and games or other activities to get the group engaged around the design problem to facilitate this process and hopefully generate fresh ideas and come up with innovative design solutions, but primarily to come up with solutions appropriate to the user needs. 

This approach to design both makes sense and can result in relevant and sometimes inspired design ideas, that is clear, yet reflecting on the co-design process after arki_lab’s talk I was reminded of the importance of the discovery research phase in the co-design process.


Designers are making a mistake if they believe that just because they have the users on board they are designing with a needs based approach.


This is because it usually takes more than reported behaviour to get the full story of users’ interactions with product and place.


When the University of New South Wales Faculty of Built Environment commissioned a small video ethnographic component to a large multi-method project on the information needs of Do-It-Yourself Home Modifications for Disability, some surprising findings emerged beyond the original research scope. We spent time with people in their homes to see how people used and moved in their private space, how they related to their house-mates and carers, and how the disability modifications they’d fitted worked into their space and their lives. We talked with participants and also observed and filmed them using their products.

What was surprising was that while participants said one thing, in many instances their behaviour revealed something completely different. One participant, very happy with her new hand-held shower, reported it to be easy to use: “I don’t have any trouble with it”. Yet in practice she struggled to replace the hand-set on the cradle, fumbling with one hand then both hands (when really she should have been steadying herself with the grab- rail that she’d also installed). What people say is not necessarily what they do.


If we rely on reported behaviour alone we don’t see the full picture of how people and things interact. 


Co-design or co-creation is employed in service design, digital design, built environment, industrial design by just about every industry that is creating new material and is looking to make their new work more relevant to the people they are creating for. This is a sound approach but designers are making a mistake if they believe that by engaging a co-design team they are immune from the classic designer pitfalls.


It’s just as easy for the user-cum-designer to make the very mistakes the designer is attempting to avoid.


Once engaged in the process, users become designers and are just as prone as Designers (with a capital D) to fall into the same bad habits every designer is attempting to avoid by engaging them in the first place.

By bad habits I mean

  • failure to fully examine the needs of the end user
  • working from a limited understanding of those needs
  • failure to develop a full exploration of the design criteria 
  • jumping to solutions within the design process
  • becoming attached to early solutions


Jumping to solutions is one of the human mind’s favourite things to do because we’re really good at it.


And if you're a designer you’re probably especially good at it, and if you’re a user that has been invited to a co-design workshop you’re probably really good at it too. Designers who engage users in the design process need to understand that once the user is engaged in the design process they are a designer too and just as prone to jump to solutions.

I recently attended an event run by artist/writer Malcom Whittaker, where a small group of us gathered to participate in an ongoing conversation called Ignoramous Anonymous. As part of his project Malcom meets with groups of people from all walks of life and opens a dialogue about “what they don’t know”. It can range from some small guilty confession like “I don’t know how to change a tyre”, to gaps in people’s experience that they perceive as seriously amiss, like “I don’t know anything about Torres Strait Islander people, where even is Torres Strait?”.

The exercise (in part) was to explore the gaps in what we know, to explore our ignorance and leave it at that.  What was interesting to me as an ethnographic researcher interested in design anthropology, was how quickly the group jumped to solutions. It was very difficult not to. Our minds went immediately to sharing our experience, giving answers and finding solutions, it’s in our nature. 


We need to linger in ignorance to broaden understanding.


For any designer, it is easy for to get caught up in the build phase once they see and feel progress. It can get quite addictive, seeing a design develop is exciting, and we become attached to the work in progress. In a co-design process it is just as easy for the user-participant to get caught in this excitement. Although progress is great, its crucial to ask "am I making the right progress?”. Its crucial to go back to the research and to do further research of prototypes to answer this question. In the co-design setting it is important to not only make the design process participatory, but also to… 


Make the research process participatory 



The Transport Accident Commission of Victoria commissioned a large ethnographic study to understand risk-taking behaviour amongst young drivers. Over and above in-depth in-home interviews, time was spent in cars with participants, as well as at home with friends and family doing everyday activities. A picture emerged of the young participants’ attitudes, as well as what they get up to, and especially what they get up to in cars. Participants were also asked to use their own smart phones attached to their dashboard to film themselves on normal everyday driving trips. Using this reflexive visual methodology meant participants were able to look at their own behaviour. One participant, aware that she was ‘not the best driver on the road’, and in the habit of using her phone while driving ‘but only when I know its safe’, after seeing her own video was shocked by how long her eyes left the road and turned to her phone. In this way she was able to ‘own’ her behaviour and see it with new eyes.

This underlines the importance of grounding all design, and especially co-design, in strong discovery research from the outset. Research that goes beyond reported behaviour to look at individual user behaviour and broader cultural habits. People and culture are incredibly complex. Ethnography offers a way to make sense of this complexity. It lets us see beyond our preconceptions and immerse ourselves in the world of others. Most importantly, it allows us to see patterns of behaviour in a real world context, patterns that we can understand both rationally and intuitively.

The Australian Government Digital Transformation Agency, is engaged in research projects for the design of some online services. No easy design task for the agency as they wrangle an existing digital space and established institutional complexity across many government services. The DTA take an enlightened approach by engaging in quite deep reaching design research and ethnography. 


As one of the DTA’s research teams, our job as ethnographers was to spend time with people who were having a baby, to visit their homes and follow both their journey as a family and their digital journey with services. We visited people in their homes, saw how they ran their lives and how they prepared both physically and emotionally for the impending arrival.  

When it came time to talk about their online engagement, participants became heated to say the least. Many users’ experience when dealing with Gov services online was fraught with frustration and participants were full of suggestions and solutions. “I want a website with windows along the left that click through to… “, “I want a phone app that works just like this other app I use” and so on.

In light of this, our challenge was to avoid getting caught in the detail of what participants ‘wanted’. Leisa Reichelt, then Head of Service Design and User Research at the DTA has an amusing analogy to underline the important difference between user feedback and behavioural research when she says that just because users exclaim “I want a pony!” doesn’t necessarily mean you give them one. But rather you “understand user needs, research to develop a deep knowledge of the users and their context for using the service”.

To fulfil the best of consumer needs across the complexity of difference we need to avoid getting stuck in first solutions thinking and I want details and maintain that broader perspective for longer. We need to become behaviour spotters.


If the behaviour is more fascinating than the 'working solution' you’re getting somewhere



When Clemenger Agency asked us to conduct ethnographic research for the client Wrigley’s Chewing Gum in an effort to gauge how well Wrigley’s global ‘Time to Shine’ strategy fit the Australian sensibility, the findings were rich with unexpected behaviour. 

We met with a small range of people but from all walks of life and in different parts of the city to explore readiness rituals. We found a fascinating diversity of attitudes and approaches but even more fascinating were the ways in which people’s behaviour were similar. When faced with a big upcoming event needing a high level of organisation and preparation, the inner west film maker guy with ADHD and the student teacher woman from Rooty Hill both loved to change the bed sheets. They were compelled to change the sheets, it made them feel prepared, refreshed, on top of things and ready to face the challenge. Ethnography provides rich insights into how people make sense of their world and how they incorporate rituals into their lives, some rituals are large and public while others are small and private. 

The project was peppered with fascinating anecdotal evidence that together formed a cohesive picture. We were able to form a comprehensive map of people’s process behaviour around readiness and gum’s potential within that. Ethnography helps us learn how to communicate more effectively with target audiences by understanding a language of behaviour they really understand. 

When arki_lab gave their talk, the host Edmiston Jones Architects also invited local indigenous Elder, Uncle Max 'Dulumunmun' Harrison, into the conversation about designing communities for all ages, to hear his understanding of site and 'country' in place making.

As an ethnographic researcher I was as much intrigued by the way he spoke as what he said. His manner of story telling was filled with detail and personal experience, it meandered from one thing to the other and wove across the subject to then cleverly circle back to the beginning. The contrast with arki_labs way of storytelling that had a linear, point by point logical flow accompanied by tidy power point slides was fascinating. 


The ethnographer’s perspective makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar.


In vogue along with Co-design is Design Thinking, a methodology used by designers to match people’s needs with feasible solutions. It is a process of activities that encourages divergent thinking to reach appropriate and innovative solutions and usually follows five steps; empathise > define > ideate > prototype > test. The design thinking process typically results in walls covered in Post-it Notes that sketch out the ideas generated.  

Award winning designer Natasha Jen gave a contentious talk at the 99U Conference in New York recently, decrying the formulaic, Post-it Note laden, oversimplification of the Design Thinking process. Jen lobbies for the ‘Crit’ (a design critique involving a small group of other designers who discuss initial sketches or prototypes) over the ‘Post-It’ when it comes to moving design forward. Whether you agree with her or not, interesting to me is that Jen ends her case with a strong assertion that…


‘Real designers surround themselves with evidence.’


‘Evidence’ is gathered from research conducted in the ‘empathise’ phase of the Design Thinking process. Because ethnographers enter the world of the user to engage with their experience and observe their interactions with the world and people, much of their research takes on the important role of creating empathy. Ethnography informs design by revealing a deep understanding of people and how they make sense of their world. Because ethnography is a research method based on observing people in their natural environment rather than in a formal research setting, when ethnography is applied to design, it helps designers create more compelling solutions. I would add to Jen’s assertion and say…


Real designers make research a continuous part of their process.  


By spending time in real world settings, observing what people do, giving people the opportunity to observe themselves, we learn more about the choices they make and how they perceive and alter their own actions. As a result, we can make communications more relevant, create environments that connect with people’s real emotions and intentions, produce products that have true purpose to people, design services that evoke meaningful experiences for them and develop strategy and innovation with sound, needs-based design because…


in a world overpopulated with products, people and choices this feels like the only sensible reason to create more.