finding the co in co-design

The last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how to proceed with the co-design project I started with my community partners over a year ago. I have been concerned that according to my timeline, I should be wrapping up this part of my PhD, but that we set out to make something together and that we still haven’t accomplished that. Recently, I was reminded of existing projects like Know Your Placembira and Historypin that are attempting to provide platforms for people to provide information about the places that matter to them. These projects are far further along than we are, and already have established teams with digital skills and resources – and in terms of accessing funding, we would be treading some common ground. Having spent some more time with these platforms, I went over the requirements my partners and I had identified at the very beginning and I still wasn’t satisfied these other platforms offer what we were looking for.

From the beginning, I have been picturing short snippets of information, uploaded by users, that can be intuitively navigated, organised and combined to create personal representations of shared heritage places. We had discussed the possibility of contributing content through existing social media platforms and Twitter had always been my dominant mental image for this. During a conversation a couple of weeks ago, I realised maybe Instagram was a better fit. The conversation was about how Instagram feels so much happier than Twitter. It made me think – why? And it made me wonder whether I should be thinking about using Instagram more for research.

Taking a step back, and considering the functionality of Twitter and Instagram, it struck me that Instagram more naturally lends itself to what we are looking for. It is visually appealing, there is no limit to the length of captions or the number of hashtags, it accepts various forms of media and it attracts younger users – to mention just a few factors. By using Instagram in combination with Storify, users could contribute content, navigate it through hashtags and combine it into stories on Storify. I don’t think this provides us with everything we were looking for, but I think the functionality of Instagram and Storify, used in combination, offers elements of what we want – and uploading sample content to these platforms and playing around with it might make it clearer to us what we would like to do with it that these platforms don’t provide. This then, would help us define our design concept.

I tried to communicate this idea with my partners by email and suggested we meet up. But over the next few days, I became increasingly uncomfortable with this development. It felt like once again, I was coming up with ideas and trying to convince others that they were worthwhile. I was brought to co-design through an experience of being involved in designing a product that nobody wanted to use. Co-design was supposed to save me from experiencing that again, but in order to breathe life back into my co-design project I was heading back down that route – of coming up with an idea and trying to convince others its what they want. It struck me, that we have perhaps fallen into this trap together, as a group. My partners seem to often be thinking about how they want other people to use what we are designing, but the whole point of co-design is to invite potential users to design a solution that meets their own needs – if I’m designing for others and my partners are designing for others, then we are simply designing for someone else, together.

I got an email back from one of my partners saying my Instagram-Storify solution is not what they wanted. It made me feel anxious, but it also made me happy. I think my idea was misunderstood (I don’t think I communicated it well in my initial email), but what was significant to me was the sense that my partners knew what they didn’t want and that this was helping a clearer picture of what they do want instead.

On Saturday I met up with another of my partner groups at one of their events. It was great to catch up. They don’t really know what they want in terms of a digital platform, but they got something else out of working with me. I’ve decided I’ll consider this a win. Over the last few days I’ve realised I need to let go a little. Yes, I’d love to see people upload content about their heritage to Instagram and string it together on Storify – and I’d love to build a platform that sits between the two that becomes wildly popular and helps make heritage an everyday concern for everyone. But I don’t need that to happen – certainly not for my PhD. And I definitely don’t need to spend energy trying to force that if nobody is interested. We heritage professionals love to think that everyone has opinions about heritage and are dying to share them – but maybe they’re not. Maybe they just want to enjoy it and not have to deal with it’s management. For me, “letting go a little” doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the co-design project anymore, but that I don’t need a successful product for me. If my partners need a solution, I’ll do my best to help create that together – and if they don’t, that’s fine too. Maybe letting go will help me truly find the “co” in co-design. It’s not about me using my partners to turn my vision into one that everyone wants, but for us together to create something that meets my partners’ needs.

Maybe the key to #hexpertise is for professionals to care less about the task and more about the people they work with.

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