Guide to co-design

Learn how to create a participatory design process

Local governments can use participatory “co-design” principles and practices to help ensure that their programs and products that use open data are designed to meet the needs of current and potential users.

In this guide, you will learn what co-design is, see an example of it in action, and get some tips of how to apply co-design in your context.

What is co-design?

“Co-design” refers to a participatory approach to designing solutions, in which community members are treated as equal collaborators in the design process.

Co-design is a well-established approach to creative practice, particularly within the public sector. It has its roots in the participatory design techniques developed in Scandinavia in the 1970s. Co-design is often used as an umbrella term for participatory, co-creation and open design processes.

This approach goes beyond consultation by building and deepening equal collaboration between citizens affected by, or attempting to, resolve a particular challenge. A key tenet of co-design is that users, as ‘experts’ of their own experience, become central to the design process. Design for Europe
The community services sector has adapted co-design to combine lived experience and professional expertise to identify and create an outcome or product. It builds on engagement processes such as social democracy and community development where all critical stakeholders, from experts to end users, are encouraged to participate and are respected as equal partners sharing expertise in the design of services and products. Fair Deal Forum

Key components of a co-design process should involve:

  • Intentionally involving target users in designing solutions
  • Postponing design decisions until after gathering feedback
  • Synthesizing feedback from target users into insights
  • Developing solutions based on feedback

As you can see, co-design is a process, not a single event. Additionally, this process can be iterative — so even after you have released or launched a product, you can still go back to the community to get feedback and design improvements.

Why does co-design matter for open data?

If one of the key purposes of open data is to benefit the public, then it follows that governments should work with the public to ensure that open data is being released and presented in ways that meet community needs and desires. Otherwise, they risk pouring a lot of effort into products that may not end up getting used or that are very challenging to use.

Co-design at the local level

Local governments are particularly equipped to engage the community in co-design because of the small geographic areas that they cover. Local governments can easily convene meetings of residents, business owners, and other community stakeholders — including repeated meetings of the same groups of people.

By contrast, it would be more challenging for the United States government to conduct a co-design process nationwide… though that doesn’t mean they should ignore co-design principles!

Example of co-design in practice

What does co-design look like when done by governments? Here is an example:

Reimagining a green space in Lancaster, England (2012)

The challenge: The city council of Lancaster, England was looking to revamp an overgrown green space surrounding the town’s castle, specifically in a way that would enjoy community support.

“This posed a challenge as throughout the project we talked to people who considered the standard council consultation process to be more of an exercise in communicating the decisions already made, rather than really looking for ideas and opinions.” In particular, they wanted to find new ways to engage a wider set of people, “not just the people with the time and inclination to attend consultation events.”

Map of the project site

The co-design process: They hired a group of designers, who came up with a set of five activities:

  1. “[A] corner of the central shopping square in Lancaster was transformed into a representation of the area ‘Beyond the Castle’. Passers-by were invited to document both the things they did in the area and how it could be improved on a three-metre model of the area.”
  2. In the green space itself, actors told stories and asked participants for ideas. “This was designed to elicit a deeper interaction aimed at families and the young at heart.”
  3. A session was held where participants, ranging in age from 3 to 92, created small models of possible interventions.
  4. A group of active contributors was invited to analyze, curate, and synthesize all the ideas generated from the previous activities.
  5. The city created an interactive exhibition that immersed visitors in all of the feedback and asked them to answer a prompt and “come up with suggestions that were documented on cardboard boxes.”

“These co-design suggestions are notable for the range and sophistication of the ideas developed by individuals,” the project’s leaders noted. “Largely these were good new ideas from the perspective of our Council colleagues.”

The ideas were summarized in a report for the Council, which is being used to inform the planning process. “The level of public engagement, the innovative nature of the process and the quality of the responses, the outcomes of the process have a legitimacy and weight that is hard to dismiss.”

Read the full design report

Read the case study (source for all quotes above)

This was a very involved process lasting about a year. Your process can be much simpler! But we hope this provides a tangible example of co-design in local government.

How to apply co-design principles

There are a number of methods that you can use as part of your co-design process. Some examples include:

  • Hosting public events
  • Conducting feedback surveys
  • Collaborating on open-source tools
  • Posting things on Google Docs to solicit comments
  • Hosting design workshops
  • Gathering experts to comment
  • User testing

For more details on how to conduct specific types of in-person activities, Service Design Tools is a great website that details a variety of methods:

Service Design Tools screenshot

Additional sites with detail on various co-design methods include:

Tips to keep in mind

Here are a few tips as you go about your co-design process:

Genuinely listen to feedback and adapt your tool

It can be easy to dismiss people’s concerns — saying that people are uninformed, don’t understand, have unrealistic expectations, or want things beyond the scope of the immediate project. But really try to absorb the feedback and be willing to go back to the drawing board.

When listening to feedback, try to get to the core of what people want

While it’s important to not dismiss people’s feedback, it’s also important to remember that sometimes people will say “I want __” when there is really a deeper desire that they have and that is just one way of satisfying it. Ask questions to try to find out these underlying desires are, then try to think of multiple ways of addressing those.

Gather structured input on your tools

If you can gather structured input through feedback surveys or by categorizing notes as you’re taking them, it will make it easier to compile this feedback.

Connect your guest list to user personas

If you host an in-person event, or even if you do a survey, it can be interesting to try to connect your participants/respondents to the personas you came up with. Do you see them fitting into your list of personas? Do some of them represent perspectives outside your personas — and if so, are there any new personas you should make?

The end goal is for participants to advise on specific features, improvements, or actions

It’s important to try to get feedback that is as actionable as possible. Statements like “I don’t like this” or “I love this” are not particularly helpful for trying to take action. When people say vague things like that, as “Why?” and “What specifically do you like/dislike?”

Optional: Decide roles to collaborate on implementing solutions

If some part of your open data solution involves the action of community organizations, decide on how the co-design process should inform their work moving forward. This will help them feel even more like partners in the design process.