Co-design: some principles, theory and practice…

designing with users

I recently had the pleasure of teaching a workshop on co-design techniques at UTS as part of their new Design Masters program. The term co-design refers to a range of things and is a philosophical and political approach to design best applied throughout the design life cycle [1]. The focus of this particular session was on techniques that you might use at the fuzzy-front end of the design process and included hands-on examples of the kinds of activities we might do as part of a co-design workshop. This post is a summary of the key messages on co-design covered as part of the session. (A second post will summarise the day and some of the questions from the students). 

The premise:

Design lives in the world. It is social and situated, people use our designs as part of their everyday lives. This means we have a responsibility with regards to how and what we design. For me, an aspect of this responsibility is supporting the active involvement and participation of ‘users’ (people/stakeholders/those impacted by the design) in the design process. ‘Users’ are the experts of their own domain. As designers it is our role to facilitate their involvement. That is, to support participants to imagine, express and access their experiences and expectations so that they can actively and effectively participate in the design process. That people have the right to influence their own lives and therefore should be involved in the design process is a fundamental premise of Participatory Design. Co-design methods (which build on the methods and principles of early Participatory Design) are a way to do this.

Some principles & theory

At the beginning of the design process our goal is to:

  • Understand the design situation
  • Gain insights and explore possibilities
  • Understand what any proposed design project would mean for the people impacted…what are the opportunities and challenges?

When taking a co-design approach all of this happens with users. They become partners in the design process helping us to shape the definition and direction of the design project.

Importantly, this goes well beyond “asking users what they want”. [2]

looking at the proposed design in context to the persons life

In this kind of early design research we look beyond the product being designed. E.g., it’s not just about how the person might respond to a new mobile phone app. It’s how the app, and the phone might be appropriated into the persons existing ecology, what is the broader context in which any new design might sit, how might any new designs be taken up and used?

We want to explore, and co-discover with our participants, things like:

a rich picture of an individuals life


But…people are not explicit sources of information…(Greenbaum and Madsen 1993).

It’s not possible to just extract this kind of knowledge from people….because:

  • We are limited in what we can express, people can only talk in the language that they know
  • Many of our experiences and knowledge is tacit or embedded in the everyday. Our habits, rituals, dreams and attitudes are not (necessarily) things that we have on tap to describe to design researchers, we may not even be aware of them ourselves.

we can't just "extract" knowledge from people

Instead we can use co-design methods, also known as ‘generative’ design research methods, to help make things that are normally unobservable available  as resources for design.

Sleeswijk Visser suggests that while methods such as interviews and observations give us access to the explicit and observable, generative methods allow us to access the tacit and implicit aspects of people’s lives.

Generative methods are designed to, “allow us to gain access to a hidden world of user experience” (Sleeswijk Visser, 2009)

Some practice…

So…how do we make people’s everyday experiences available for discussion? How do we get people to remember and share things that are so ingrained? [3]

We use methods that are:

  • Visual, creative, expressive

There is an emphasis on visual materials, making things and use of imagery as a way for people to make associations and communicate.

  • Physical and tangible

Physically making things helps people to explore, verbalise, remember and imagine (Sanders in particular emphasis the “make” aspect of generative methods).

  • Based on story telling

We naturally tell stories, actual stories and examples help put things into context, they are also a central way of sharing, communicating and visioning. Creating and telling stories (real or imagined) can be visual, verbal or include role play, they help to prompt, remind, and brings things that are normally tacit out into the foreground.

  • Playful, fun and embrace ambiguity

Fun is a deeply important aspect of participation, it is central to developing platforms for sharing, trust building, confidence and helping people open up. It is also part of keeping people’s energy levels up, if people are tired and the activities too serious, people will lose interest. Co-design sessions should be fun and enjoyable as well as ‘productive’. (They are also key relationship building activities). Ambiguity is important for allowing creative and unusual connections to be made and leaves space for people to apply and explore their own interpretations of things.

  • Reflective, personal, subjective

Interventions that support reflection and introspection help to make things that are otherwise embedded into our ‘everyday’ accessible and sharable.  For this reason it is very common to do reflection or ‘primer’ exercises before workshops, such as diaries or cultural probes. Asking people to observe their own behaviours for a period of time, brings things to the surface before an interview or workshop [4].

The outcomes:

Co-design sessions:

  • Allow us to create a shared understanding and shared language between participants and the designers.

They enable immersion, dialogue and empathy, we start to understand the design from the point of view of the participants. The outputs are sources of both inspiration and information for designers and participants to work with in visioning future designs. They are information gathering and design generating activities, blurring the boundaries of research and design (Sanders 2008).

And they are:

  • Designerly

The outputs from these kinds of methods differ significantly from interviews, surveys or observations. They generate rich visual, subjective and tangible material to work with.  Designers benefit from working with concrete things they can see and feel and the immediacy and accessibility of this kind of material makes it a natural resource for designers, quite different to that of a report. Imagery for example can be quickly scanned and absorbed (Mattelmäki & Battarbee, 2002). For designers this kind of material can be much more accesible than traditional research outputs. To understand the significance of designerly methods – I recommend checking out Sanders map of design research methods. In it Sanders talks about older more established styles of research which rely on systematic data analysis. Newer, design driven forms of research focus on tools for expression, reflection and sharing (and they are subjective).


[1] The term codesign is now widely used within product, UX and Service design fields. My own interpretation of co-design is based on the principles of Participatory Design and is best represented by the extensive work of Liz Sanders. Check out Sanders extensive selection of papers on her website for more about the different types of generative activities she’s been developing and evolving for the last 20 years.

[2] In a couple of recent presentations I got some people’s backs up for ‘pissing all over the quote by Ford’.

The quote in question goes something like: “If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses“. I’ve seen this quote used (more than once) at nearly every design/UX/technology conference I have attended in the last few years and my frustration over its use is because frankly I think it’s a bit of a cop-out. Invariably it gets hauled out and used as a excuse or justification not to involve or ‘ask’ users – clearly they can’t come up with innovations! The flaw here of course – (recognised by most people in UX that I know of) is that there is rarely a good justification for simply “asking users what they want”. As @voirol astutely put it, if that was the answer then you asked the wrong question. In fact such direct questioning (e.g., what features would you like) are unlikely to be a part of any serious design research process. Our questions and techniques have to be much more sophisticated than this, co-design and participatory design methods are examples of a very different approach to involving users in the design process.

[3] For example see Sanders comments on primes in the paper Design Research in 2006. Also the article Not to Prime is a crime by Jodie Moule on Johnny Holland. More about the reflective nature of diaries can be found on the Mobile Diaries article also on Johnny Holland.

Further references include:

Gaver, W., Beaver, J., & Benford, S. (2003). ‘Ambiguity as a Resource for Design’. CHI, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA. ACM,  pp.

Gaver, W., Boucher, A., Pennington, S., & Walker, B. (2004). ‘Cultural Probes and the value of uncertainty’. Interactions, Volume XI(5), pp. 53-56.

Gaver, B., Dunne, T., & Pacenti, E. (1999). ‘Design: Cultural Probes’. Interactions, pp. 21-29.

Greenbaum, J., & Madsen, K. H. (1993). PD a personal statement. Communications of the ACM. Special issue on graphical user interfaces: the next generation, 36(6), pp.

Halskov, K., & Dalsgård, P. (2006). ‘Inspiration Card Workshops’. DIS, University Park, PA, USA. ACM

Mattelmäki, T. (2005). ‘Applying probes – from inspirational notes to collaborative insights’. CoDesign, 1(2), pp. 83-102.

Mattelmäki, T. (2008). ‘Probing for co-exploring’. CoDesign, 4(1), pp. 65 – 78.

Mattelmäki, T., & Battarbee, K. (2002). ‘Empathy Probes’.  PDC’02. Malmö, Sweden, CPSR.

Sanders, E. B.-N. (2006). Design Research in 2006. Design Research Quarterly, 1.

Sanders, L. (2008). An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research Interactions (November – December), pp. 13-17.

Sanders, L. (2001). Collective Creativity. LOOP: AIGA Journal of Interaction Design Education 7(June ). Retrieved from

Sanders, E. B.-N., Brandt, E., & Binder, T. A framework for organizing the tools and techniques of participatory design.  Proceedings of the 11th Biennial Participatory Design Conference. Sydney, Australia, ACM.

Sanders, E., & Stappers, P. J. (2008). Co-creation and the New Landscapes of Design. CoDesign, 4(1), pp. 5-18.

Sleeswijk Visser, F. (2009). Bringing the everyday life of people into design. PhD Thesis Technische Universiteit Delft, Delft.

Sleeswijk Visser, F., Stappers, P. J., Lugt, R. V. D., & Sanders, E. B.-N. (2005). Contextmapping: experiences from practice. CoDesign, 1(2), pp. 119-140.

(See to access papers by Sleeswijk Visser)



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