Generating Ideas: Could co-design work for you?

Katherine William-Powlett shares her thoughts on innovation and on leadership in the voluntary sector. Katherine no longer works for NCVO but her posts have been archived on this site for reference.

When so many charities are looking for new, more cost effective ways of doing things, the idea of free, committed labour to assist is very appealing. You may have heard of the term co-design and wondered if it has any relevance to charities or if it is just a fancy term banded about to make people think they are ‘up to the minute’. What does co-design mean and what relevance does it have to charities?

A research project at Brunel University looked at just that.  Co-designers believe that everyone is creative and users of your services should be involved in designing them. The process doesn’t just make sure that the service works, and that user needs are considered: co-design draws on everyone’s creativity to devise innovative and user-centred solutions.

Designers and non-designers such as users and service providers work together to achieve better results. It has the benefits that:

  • A wider variety of ideas are explored;
  • Potential problems are identified and solved early in the project; and
  • Important issues are examined from multiple perspectives.

Many charities have close engagement with their users on a daily basis. Putting this engagement to purposeful use by involving users in the design of the services they need could not only save money, but may result in a better service.

Take one local authority that was looking at providing a youth centre in an area with a lot of anti-social behaviour. By working with the teenagers and getting them to make a film about their lives, they discovered that they the youth did not need or want a new youth centre. They wanted to have access to the existing community building from which they felt excluded.  After the older people who dominated the centre saw the film they were soon all working together to design a youth service and saved a lot of money in the process.

One way of looking at the design process is the ‘Double Diamond’ Design Process Model (from the Design Council)


This relates closely to the stages of innovation on which the NCVO Innovation pages describe but the key to co-design is to involve users every step of the way as part of a planned design process.  The Brunel University research found that few charities do this perhaps daunted by the process, or reluctant to get input from designers for reasons of cost and fear that designers will not understand the voluntary sector operating environment.

Blackwood Foundation supports independent living in Scotland and is enthusiastic about co-design. Excited by the creativity and resourcefulness of their users, they got involved in a project with design students. Users interested in wildlife explained how they are unable to get out as much as they would like and worked with designers to design an urban wildlife probe to detect wildlife in sight of their windows. Just one way in which co- design can result in new ideas to improve quality of life. Their success in this, and with a co-designed website, came from they willingness to genuinely engage with users.

Are you missing out on good ideas from your users? Do you need some ideas on how- download the free tools below to assist.

What if you are good at getting ideas from your users but not so good at involving them in later stages? See my blog Making it Real: Co-designing for a better service.

Follow the links below for more information.

You can download (and adapt to suit) FREE TOOLS to help with getting ideas from your users


Service Safari – Review your existing service – What is your service all about?

User Diaries – Learn more about your users – How does your service fit in their lives?

Emotional Map Identify problems/opportunities – What did users feel when using your service?


Personas – Summarise key traits of users and create ‘fictional’ persons that represent them

Scenarios – Create ‘fictional’ scenarios that describe how users are likely to use your service

Cluster and Voting – Cluster and evaluate ideas in order to make sure that weak ideas are weeded out

Blackwood Foundation Case Study – more detail on how the Blackwood Foundation involved their users in design including how they overcame challenges and a video of a presentation of it can be found here

Disablement Association Hillingdon (DASH) Case Study – an example of charity skilled in getting user involvement at outset but less successful in involving them throughout

Design Council Website – packed with information on design with lots of interesting case studies

For a complete list of co-design and service design methods, visit Design Methods for Developing Services, thinkpublic’s Service Card, Design with People and Service Design Tools

For inspiring ideas about how to make each stage meaningful, visit MakeTools website.

To see a short video about how to apply the co-design approach to develop services with users, please visit Engine Service Design’s Designing Service Together

For more information about methods featured in the video, please visit: Engine Service Design

For more examples of co-design projects, please visit thinkpublic and The Big Life’s Open Door.

This blog is brought to you in partnership with Brunel University and refers to their research funded by AHRC

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