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Co-design: from expert to user-driven ideas in public service design


Co-design can address complex societal problems and drive innovation in the public sector. How can we shift public service design away from an expert-driven process to one enabling users as active and equal idea contributors?

At a glance

In a paper for Public Management Review, Jakob Trischler (Karlstads University), Timo Dietrich (Griffith University) and Sharyn Rundle-Thiele (Griffith University) investigate the application of co-design during the ideation stage of six public service design projects.

Their findings help understand what it takes to involve users in public service design initiatives. This includes:

  • challenges related to recruiting and sensitising suitable users
  • activities that need to be undertaken to enable users to contribute their unique knowledge to new service ideas
  • requirements for implementing user-driven ideas.

What is co-design?

Co-design is a co-creation practice that allows users to become part of the design team as ‘experts of their experience’. It represents a shift away from design as the task of individual experts towards using the collective creativity of a team with members from different backgrounds and interests.

Close collaboration with users (consumers, customers, citizens) during the ideation stage of the service design process facilitates the translation of user knowledge into new service ideas. There is increasing evidence that co-design with users can lead to ideas which are more innovative and which better address user needs.

The ideation stage of co-design

The ideation stage involves the transformation of user needs into new service ideas. This stage is typically ambiguous and chaotic as it requires the framing of, and iteration between problem and solution spaces.

An iterative and collaborative approach to public service design enables the exploration of problem-conditions-solution combinations across the service system. This exploration sets the starting point for generating new service ideas – ideas which are then conceptualised, prototyped, and finally implemented.

Co-design as an innovation driver

Co-design uses a collaborative team approach allowing non-designers to become equal members of the design team. Participants who are not normally involved in design activities can directly contribute their knowledge and fresh perspectives to exploring problems and possible solutions.

Co-design helps overcome the ‘stickiness’ of user knowledge where user needs cannot be readily articulated using conventional research methods such as focus groups, interviews or surveys. It can also empower individual participants and drive transformational processes. Its impact can extend beyond immediate project outcomes to areas such as democratising social innovation.

The research study

The study used a case study method, collecting field data from six public service design projects. Each project included a team of three to six researchers with backgrounds in service design, marketing, psychology and social innovation.

The projects were:

  1. Alcohol education program development for parents of high-school students in Queensland: two co-design sessions as part of the ideation stage of program development involving 24 parents.
  2. Virtual reality alcohol education content development for high-school students in Queensland: one co-design session with 21 high school students as part of virtual reality script development.
  3. Social media campaign content development for addressing alcohol-related violence in Brisbane: four co-design sessions with 30 participants.
  4. Development of a campaign to reduce household food waste under Redland City Council: two co-design sessions with 21 participants.
  5. Co-design of a weight management program in Queensland: eight co-design sessions with 26 participants.
  6. Development of a train-the-trainer program to reduce dog and koala interactions: three co-design sessions with 41 dog owners.

What the study found

The fuzzy and iterative front-end of resourcing, planning and recruitment

Preparation of the co-design activities involved three stages: resourcing, planning, and recruiting. Across all the projects, these stages were highly iterative. The main driver was the need to explore and understand the underlying issue from multiple perspectives.

Participants’ backgrounds can affect the planning process as the type of task, approach or setting can change the requirements of participant recruitment. Resourcing, planning, and recruiting are suggested as ‘fuzzy front-end’ owing to the multiple challenges that need to be overcome during this phase.

Sensitising in order to prepare

The sensitisation step is aimed at engaging potential participants and triggering reflection on the topic prior to co-design facilitation. This takes place through activities such as playful exercises, game play or thought-provoking questions.

This step was found to be important as it:

  • formed a basis for reflecting on topics that users would not readily identify themselves with or proactively engage in.
  • triggered an awareness and an interest in the participants regarding the roles they play and the contributions they can make to public service design initiatives.
  • gave the participants the confidence to actively participate and contribute as experts in their own experiences.

Facilitating co-design teams

A team approach was used in all projects with the team size ranging between three and six participants. Different facilitation approaches were applied and evaluated across the six projects. The most suitable facilitation approach was where the researchers encouraged groups to form and then served as guides with team members taking the initiative to lead the team through the design process.

Reflecting and building for change

Across all the cases, the co-design participants provided insights into their everyday lives. This included advice about what does and does not work in relation to current service solutions.

The outcomes of the co-design sessions were not, in and of themselves, market-ready solutions. They contributed user-driven ideas for the research team and service designers to build on in consultation with other stakeholders (e.g. public authorities or policymakers). The back-end of the co-design activity (reflection and solution building) is iterative in nature as stakeholder interests needed to be considered when developing user-generated ideas into feasible solutions.

What it means

Based on insights generated from the six cases, a co-design framework is proposed as depicted in Figure 1. It involves seven steps: resourcing, planning, recruiting, sensitising, facilitating, reflecting and building for change.

Figure 1: A co-design framework for public service design

The front- and back-end phases of the process are iterative in nature. During these phases, the needs and interests of multiple actors need to be managed in order to gain support for running the actual co-design activity and implementing the user-driven idea. The close collaboration with partner organizations is particularly important during the recruitment stage in order to overcome the challenge of identifying and sourcing the relevant users.

Sensitisation is a key step preceding co-design facilitation as it:

  • helps to prepare the participants who are typically not involved in design processes
  • creates awareness of the underlying problem
  • builds trust between users and the facilitation team.

Two critical points can determine a project’s success or failure: the fuzzy front-end of planning and recruiting, and the back-end of building a platform for change.

Want to read more?

Co-design: from expert- to user-driven ideas in public service design – Jakob Trischler, Timo Dietrich and Sharyn Rundle-Thiele, Public Management Review, Volume 21 2019 – Issue 11, pp 1595-1619

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