The What, Why & How of Co-design: Interview with Andy Young

We talk to designer Andy Young on what involving users in the design process really means

Rohan Gunatillake
Nov 13th 2013

With many Digital R&D teams using co-design as part of their project development process, we talk to Andy Young. Young is a Glasgow-based designer who in the last two years has worked on several digital projects in the arts. Organisations he has worked with include the Edinburgh Festivals, macrobert arts centre in Stirling and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and all of those projects have included co-design as part of his wider design practice.

Native: What is co-design?

Andy Young: Put simply, co-design is the process of involving the end-users of something – be that a product, service or experience – in its design phase. In the arts that most typically means including your target audience in the design process. Whatever it is that’s being designed, the key thing is the involvement of end-users.

How is co-design different to market research?

The key word here is design, and the creativity implied in that. Market research tends to have a very set agenda whereas co-design when done well, should start in a much more open place. Co-design is not just about harvesting insights from your audience but giving them the permission, the agency and a process by which to allow them to respond creatively to address a challenge. The ask is not just information and opinion but creative input.

What are the benefits of co-design?

The key benefit is not getting stuck in the organisational view. I remember at the beginning of one of our arts projects, what they said they wanted was a particular type of music-based app – but there was no evidence that was something their audience really wanted. So by engaging with people at the show over several nights we came up with a project which allows the audience to become more involved in the performance. It is something they’d never have thought of themselves but they love the project so much more than their original ideas.

And the dangers?

The danger is just doing exactly what people say they want – remember that classic Henry Ford quote about if you asked people for what they wanted they would have said ‘faster horses’..There needs to be a level of synthesis, take all feedback as creative input and then allowing the designer to bring their expertise to curate all the information available. Co-design allows you to have that balanced perspective from both the organisational and the user view, it’s not just top down or just giving people what users want, it’s working in that middle space. There is also the danger that organisations aren’t clear about what their objectives are – that they enter into co-design half-heartedly or as a PR exercise and don’t really want user input in the first place.. That can be problematic.

When is co-design most valuable?

The obvious time to use it is when you know a question but don’t know the answer, for example how do we engage more people under 35 with our work? But in my experience it’s just as valuable when you think you know the answer but you’re ready and open to having your assumptions challenged and come up with a different solution.

How do you find the right people to involve in a co-design process?

If you decide to host a workshop then you’ll find that people who already like your work will turn up and so you are unlikely to find as wide a range of ideas as you might otherwise – especially if your aim is to engage new audiences. Therefore my biggest piece of advice is to go to the people rather than having them come to you or as I often say.. ‘bums off seats and onto the streets!’. If you go to where people are, you can be surprised at how quickly you can get useful insights.

Do you need a designer or can an arts org do it all by themselves?

You need to be careful when running a co-design process by themselves. Firstly, the whole point of the exercise is that the organisational view is often very different to the audience or user view and so the process must be run in such a way that does not privilege the former over the latter. Secondly, many of the tools that are central to co-design are rarely native to the arts organisation and so having an external facilitator or designer can really help get the most out of them.

Speaking to tools, can you give some examples of good co-design tools?

If I had to choose my top tools there are two that stand out for me: storyboarding and personas. Storyboarding is great since it places the narrative around your product or project as the most important thing – not just what it is but why and how will people engage with it. If you don’t get that right then no-matter how beautiful or elegant your product is, people wont use it, and that can be something often missed out. Personas are profiles of audience types and working them up in significant detail can really bring a sense of target audience to life and help you make important decisions on how a project is built and then marketed. It can be tempting to have loads and loads of personas but what I recommend is condensing some of your key audience types down into around 3 super-personas which means it is much easier to keep a range of behaviours and types in their head. And remember, these are creative tools, because when you give people creative tools they will be creative, and design is fundamental to facilitating that creativity.

People also people also talk about co-creation, is that the same as co-design?

What co-creation shares with co-design is the co-bit, the involvement of users however co-design is solely about the start of the process, and is what happens when you giving users a creative role in defining what something will be like. Co-creation can include co-design but is a bigger scope in that it refers to when the actions of your users or your audience changes the creative experience or artwork itself. For example, the Unlimited Theatre project uses co-design to define what their new playscript reading experience will be like but the actual app is not made by the user in any way. And the Imperial War Museum project uses co-creation in that users take part in the curation and exhibition process itself but they did not design the web platform on which it sits.

Have there been any surprises in all your work in the arts?

It always surprises – and delights – me that even though organisations are convinced about what they need, with a good co-design process you can deliver something so far away from what they originally came up with themselves and they will love it even more. For example with macrobert, had we just made them the student-focussed app they originally wanted we would not have made the social media persona tool that will impact how they think about and engage with audiences across everything they do. There’s always an idea as a starting point, but then co-design lets you deconstruct those early assumptions and take it to a place that is much for informed in a collaborative way. The biggest learning has been that transition: we wanted X and we ended up with Y and Y is so much better than X.

How might co-design be a competitive advantage?

Competitive advantage doesn’t even do it justice. It’s about culture, engagement, listening, it’s about 21st century practice. People like to feel like they are close to the organisations, the products and creative work that they love. Engaging in co-design will deepen people’s loyalty and satisfies the wish to want to feel a part of it. There will be the commercial returns and therefore a competitive advantage but it’s much more than that. And it will also be in the norm in 3-4 years so it’s best the arts get used to it now before it’s too late. Design used to be the icing, but now it’s the flour that makes the cake and that makes this a very exciting time.

Andy Young is a designer working at Snook, a Glasgow-based agency whose work in the arts has included the Festivals Design DNA project for the Edinburgh Festivals. Follow him on twitter as @andyyoungdesign