Participle founder Hilary Cottam was recognised as the UK Designer of the Year in 2005 for applying the design approach to social issues such as prisoner re-offending rates. Building on these foundations Participle used and developed design processes and tools in tandem with its mission Beveridge 4.0 to develop solutions- it’s this combination that made us unique. The design process starts with people rather than institutions and builds capacity for innovation. It helps make sure the right question is being answered or the right problem is being solved and allows space for radically new ideas to be developed. Beveridge 4.0 and the design process both centre on participation, unlocking the resources held in people, and it’s this power that has been brought to our work.
Here we give examples of how we used the design process and its advantages.
The application of the design process in solving complex problems like the future of health or employment has some key advantages:
Starts with people
The design process starts with people- their needs and their aspirations. This means problems and opportunities are seen through people’s own eyes rather than through the view of an institution. The design process of course is visual and experiential; it means you can get to people’s latent needs, not just the things they want that they can tell you about.
Answers the right question
Can you redesign youth centres? We were once asked. No we replied, we first need to understand the problem to know what needs to be designed. Reframing the opportunity is vital to make sure people real needs are met. Instead we asked ‘what supports young people to have a flourishing adolescence?’ The design process starts by framing the problem or opportunity.
Builds to think
Prototyping solutions, be that on paper through a storyboard or through an ‘experience’ for example a mock up service, allows you to experiment and test ideas quickly without large up front costs. In contrast to a pilot, where you might be trying to prove a concept, prototypes allow you to get feedback and iterate to improve your ideas as you go. This process takes people with you, gives people permission to try something different. The stories and outcomes help build a case for a new approach and make it feel possible.
Building on our insights [Link] we developed an idea to deliver practical support to older people. Older people were recruited across south London, ‘Neighbourhood Helpers’ were employed and a free phone number was set up. We waited and waited for older people to call to ask us for help around the home: nothing. We then sent out five paper vouchers for people to ‘spend’ on practical support and the phone started ringing. We began to learn what practical help people wanted, how they might use a future service.
Finding out about living well
We knew to get real insight in this area we needed not to ask people about their health but to ask them about what living well meant to them. People talked about their lives in terms that were broader than the long term condition they might be living with. We found out about the relationships that people had around them- from this we knew we needed to prototype solutions that involved people and their networks if people were to stick at life changing habits.
Segmenting unemployed people
Our insights taught us about the importance of people’s motivation to work whether that be about identity, money or to set an example. Most traditional employability segmentations segment people by age, how long they have been out of work or whether they have children. We saw that if we segmented people by what motivated them to work we might better understand how to support people to move into work.
Living alongside families
Members of the Participle team lived alongside a number of families that our Swindon Partners identified as most problematic, staying in empty council accommodation on some of the estates. We experienced the lived reality of the families’ lives: doing the school run, shopping on the high street, spending social evenings in the local pub, searching for their children after dark and witnessing negotiations with loan sharks. We sat on their sofas as a succession of policemen, social workers, learning support officers, housing officers and others made their calls. Through spending time with people in their lives and using design research techniques we started to really understand life for these families - as best we could without living their lives ourselves.
Prototyping the ‘Reflector’ role in loops
We wanted to prototype a role to support young people to reflect on their experiences in order to help them internalise what they had learnt. Initially the reflector role did not work- we had recruited youth workers and teachers who found it difficult to step outside of their usual roles. In practice what should have been an equal interaction between reflector and young person too easily reverted to interactions where the reflector as a professional held all the power. Our two day training explored the concepts behind the reflector role but we realised it was too theoretical and divorced from real life experiences. We changed tack and trained reflectors by first asking them to take part in an experience which they themselves may reflect on. Here we learnt quickly before we recruited a team or spent money on training.