Co-design: Ensuring users’ needs are at the heart of services

Amira Chilvers is a consultant at NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. She supports charities of all types and sizes to improve their monitoring and evaluation through training and consultancy, as well as conducting external evaluations. Amira has a background in education, having trained as a teacher and undertaken various education consultancy roles prior to joining NCVO.


I recently attended a co-design workshop for the pathway strand of the Impact Management Programme. NCVO is one of the delivery partners in this programme, which is led by charity think tank NPC.  The programme aims to improve the way charities and social enterprises use their impact data to learn and improve. User involvement, including co-design is a key part of the programme’s philosophy to ensure that products and services are user-friendly and reflect real needs.

The co-design workshop was attended by 12 potential users of the programme. Led by our design agency partner Hactar, we wanted to understand what charities and social enterprises need to help them improve their impact management, and how Hactar might design a tool or system to support their learning.

What is co-design?

Co-design is a participatory process involving a range of stakeholders – particularly service users – in needs assessment and service design. It is based on some key assumptions:

  • everyone is creative
  • users have specific knowledge and expertise that is central to the design process, and so do designers
  • much of users’ experience and knowledge is tacit and people may not even be aware of it.

The workshop I attended was visual, playful and creative, with liberal use of post-it notes, card sorts and sketching. You can even use Lego. Although sadly we did not on this occasion!

What were the benefits of co-design?

Understanding what would work for users

Co-design is a really good way to test your assumptions about what works for users. We used the session to test how people wanted to engage with learning, and my assumptions were certainly called into question. I expected that mobile-enabled learning would be welcomed, as indeed it was, but I was surprised at how many people felt that they learned best through mentoring and face-to-face interaction.

Developing and prioritising ideas

One of the participants ‘pitches’ the team’s final design studio sketch

In a ‘design studio’ session we sketched tools that would help us learn about how to do impact management better. It was surprisingly good fun, once we got over our fear of drawing, and it was amazing how many ideas could be included in a single sketch. Through pitching ideas, important needs were confirmed and the best ideas refined and developed. For example, one participant suggested an email ‘nudge’ as a task reminder. By the final design this had become a mobile notification, with a ‘game element’ that enabled users to rack up points for each task.

Engaging users

The workshop reinforced my belief that participatory approaches to understanding service users’ needs and experiences are far more engaging and creative than traditional methods, since they offer participants the additional opportunity to network and learn from each other. Participants described the workshop as ‘invigorating,’ ‘thought-provoking’, ‘open and supportive’ and ‘exciting.’

Participants exploring what content or tools would help users achieve particular goals, using post-it notes

How to make co-design work for you

Get the question right

As with any data collection method, the way you frame the question affects the responses you get. Based on learning from previous workshops, we changed some questions for this workshop, leading to a much richer set of responses to the design studio brief and some new ideas.

Get the pace right

Co-design workshops benefit from being fast-paced, with a variety of different activities and inputs. Activities were often timed to the minute, and yet it didn’t feel rushed. The workshop was a lesson in how much you can generate in a short time, with the right choice of activity. And with everyone active almost all the time, there was no ‘dead time’ or opportunity for people to switch off.

Co-design can be a really helpful way of involving service users in the development of services. It requires skilled facilitation, but the benefits in terms of user engagement and idea generation are well worth the investment.

If you are interested in finding out more about what co-design is and how to use it, you may find the following links helpful:


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