Co-designing research

How can a co-design approach be applied to research? What co-designed research projects are currently happening across the University of Sydney? Are there common challenges colleagues are experiencing?

These were some of the questions in mind when I registered to attend the recent Co-designing Research seminar series presented by Sydney Policy Lab and the Research Portfolio. As a researcher who engages a co-design approach for educational development, the topic immediately resonated with me. I wanted to hear colleagues’ perspectives on how they understand co-design and how co-design is being applied in different ways as a research methodology.

So what is co-design?

‘Co-design’ is an increasingly ubiquitous term in public discourse. But what does it really mean? Co-design represents a “participatory turn” in the field of design (Zamenopoulos & Alexiou, 2018). I think of it as a way to re-conceptualise the design process from designing for clients to designing with communities. This re-framing recognises that while designers have expert knowledge in their domain, so too do communities and stakeholders hold deep understandings that are nuanced, situated, diverse and emerge from lived experience.

The ethics of co-design arise from an approach to community organising that seeks to move beyond passive consultation with stakeholders to actively involving communities as participants. This acknowledges the value of lived experience to inform the design process. It also acknowledges that, as stakeholders, communities will ultimately be the most impacted by design outcomes and thus should have more than just a say in what is being created.

In the context of education, co-design allows for an open and collaborative approach to development. Especially as the education ecology becomes more complex, as cohort sizes increase, as we rely more on technology to deliver quality experiences, the need to draw expertise from different domains is sharply apparent. In practice, this might mean involving students, industry practitioners, teachers, alumni, learning designers, technologists, media producers, researchers and other stakeholders in development processes together (Penuel & Roschelle, 2007). This model draws on exisiting frameworks and approaches that break down inherited hierarchies between students, academics and professional staff, such as students-as-partners (Bovill, Cook‐Sather & Felten, 2011) and learner-centered design (Soloway, 1994).

Check yourself

With co-design being such a buzzword, it’s useful to reflect on whether the projects and approaches we place under this banner actually align with its core principles.

KA McKercher – principles for co-design. Image:

Design leader and educator, KA McKercher, has created an excellent set of resources on co-design. They encourage us to move ‘beyond sticky notes’ to get into the messy and, at times contested, realness of what it means to co-design with others. McKercher has created a helpful tool to determine if something is co-design. Ask yourself the following:

  1. Are people with lived experience and professionals involved as active partners (co-designers) throughout the design process?
  2. Are we building the capability of co-designers? For example, in research, identifying opportunities, conceptual design, prototyping, implementation, monitoring and evaluation.
  3. Are proposed approaches evaluated from the perspective of whether they create value for the people they’re intended to serve? Are they naming the outcomes that matter most to them?
  4. Is power named, challenged and negotiated?

As an educator, I find the provocation to consider whether all participants are actually learning through the co-design process – that capacity is being generated – to be especially revealing.

A relational method

Sydney Policy Lab positions co-design not just as a design and development model, but also as a research methodology. The Lab work with a ‘relational method’ as their particular take on co-designing research. A relational method centres relationships at the heart of research processes by privileging listening, receptivity and reciprocity. Relational researchers are not simply interested in building rapport with research subjects. Rather, as Dr Amanda Tattersall of Sydney Policy Lab explains, a relational method reconfigures the traditional conception of researcher and research participant into “…a partnership between two kinds of people in pursuit of a common agenda in public life” (Tattersall, 2021).

While ethics and power dynamics are always of central importance in co-design (as shown in McKercher’s tool above), this is all the more critical when the method is employed for research. The Lab’s seminars have given me the chance to reflect (beyond the buzzword) on what co-design truly means, to interrogate the ethics and power dynamics at play when we co-design with others and to speak to colleagues from different disciplines about where they are at with their thinking on co-design for research projects.

The second seminar in the series featured Associate Professor Chris Evans speaking on Indigenous Research Methods and approaches to co-design and co-production of research (Evans, 2014). In the breakout room discussion with colleagues there was a strong acknowledgement of the importance of engaging with Indigenous research methods. Yet the colleagues I spoke with shared a sense that in some cases our institutional structures work against us being able to do this meaningfully. For example, Associate Professor Evans emphasised the need to schedule proper time for interviews when speaking with First Nations research participants – suggesting a day as opposed to an hour. She emphasised that researchers need to take the time to build real relationships, following proper cultural protocols, and not extract valuable knowledge without creating mutual benefit for participants. Yet in my breakout room discussion, colleagues felt that while they would like to implement this kind of best practice approach, their research timelines and budgets are constricting. There seemed to be agreement that a culture-shift would be needed to give a relational approach to research the kind of time and space it requires.

What’s next?

The next seminar in the series will feature Professor Julie Redfern, NSW Woman of Excellence, speaking on co-design in health. That webinar will be on Thursday 7 April 2022, 1pm-2pm and Sydney University staff can register at this link.

If you’re interested in learning more on the Sydney Policy Lab’s approach, you can watch this video on the relational method, and read this blog post by Dr Amanda Tattersall on Building knowledge through powerful relationships – introducing the relational method.


Image credit: Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

Published by jessica tyrrell

humble educator | radical creativity | critical curiosity

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