One of the first challenges for this year is a presentation about user-centred or co-design, what it means to design a process with participants and what it may be like for participants to be part of that experience. Not a small topic, then.

A key part for me was to explore what I felt co-design to be about – and why working with participants in the research process was important in the work I am planning. So many conversations, blogs and articles offer different judgements on what co-design ‘means’ – with quite a few claiming co-design as an approach for something which uses data gathering through a workshop or survey to thinly veil a pre-determined direction set by the researcher as expert .

 "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Goldman, William (1973)

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Goldman, William (1973)

It turns out that these arguments about co-design are still pretty ‘zeitgeist-y’… Kevin Gillan blogged a few weeks ago about the needs to move ‘towards an ethic of public sociology’. He highlights the challenge in planning research co-design:
“Scholars need to guard against unwittingly reproducing an extractive mode of engagement with ‘research subjects’ and instead take seriously the idea of co-production of knowledge that recognises the expertise of movement groups involved in the analysis of social problems. Given the inequalities built into research relationships that are often sparked by academics with agendas that have been set already, and in conversation with problems defined in scholarly literature, this is a difficult task that should be embedded in the design of research projects and operate continuously through data collection, analysis and dissemination”.

The AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ project is reflecting on the impact collaborative research has had on the projects undertaken in the last few years. A report from the January advisory group meeting highlighted the benefits for participants, including “new relationships, increased credibility, greater recognition for existing work, ownership and control of research projects”. The winter 2014 special edition of DesignIssues included an article by Tuuli Mattelmäki, Kirsikka Vaajakallio and Ilpo Koskinen on developments in co-design and empathic design in the Nordic countries – where perhaps it has been embedded most significantly.

Co-design has to be more than user-centred, where there is participation and consultation, but the focus remains with the researcher. Instead, co-designed research should be about a dialogic process: ‘Co’ indicates something which is about community, equality, empowerment and collective creativity; something sustainable, shared, active and social. Co-design is democratising and a political statement about challenging those “inequalities” of the research relationship.

This is, of course, not without difficulty. Many feel concerned about the abrogation of responsibility in research design. How can the researcher manage unexpected provocations, trajectories and outcomes? How can we behave ethically in gaining informed consent for an organic process from which unanticipated data may spring? There are other questions about providing an authentic voice for research outputs co-created with participants outside the academy. Don’t get me started on the anxieties surrounding academics’ personal competencies such as emotional intelligence and sensitivity.

Co-design is a very messy process – it demands lots of fuzzy discussion before a clear line of thought and organised, collaborative outcome can be reached. I am trying to put into practice Kevin Gillan’s points about embedding ethically considered co-design in my research project. This may mean lots of unexpected direction – participants may want to consider different issues to the ones I am anticipating; constant review of what informed consent means will be necessary; finding the right voice and format for dissemination cannot be decided yet because my research collaborators need to discuss that at length. Readjusting and reframing will be demanding, but social, creative, authentic – and worth it.
yarn barf