How Therachat Designs Supportive Co-Design Sessions

May 19, 2017

At Therachat, we aim to avoid designing in a vacuum as much as possible. We involve our target users in the design process through what’s called a co-design session. Our target users — people with anxiety — are the experts in their own experiences, so it only makes sense to involve them so we can better understand and carry forward their mental models, goals, and needs.

A colleague and I ran our first-ever co-design session with our target users in March 2017. The kicker — I also have anxiety. I know what it’s like to walk alongside them on our respective journeys. I also know that due to an unfortunate stigma, it can be difficult to open up about your own mental health, especially in a room full of strangers. Until that stigma is vanquished, we need to take care in how we talk about mental health.

Here are some tips I collected from planning and running our first supportive, welcoming co-design session in case they are helpful for fellow UX practitioners designing their own:

Establish expectations before the session

We send every participant an email beforehand that outlines key details of their session — both the logistical (scheduled time, how many other participants will be in the room) and the objective. We also let them know it would absolutely be ok if they don’t feel comfortable answering certain prompts during our time together.

If you have phone numbers on hand, give them a ring before the session to check in. If I put myself in my participants’ shoes, I would appreciate hearing a friendly voice who can answer any questions as I’m getting ready for the session, especially if I have never participated in something like this before. (This tip can apply to any research method, not just co-design.)

Create a “Yes, and…” environment

One of the pillars of improv is “Yes, and…” It helps establish an environment of collaboration by building off of each other’s ideas. At Therachat, we embrace that philosophy. We introduced it to our participants by playing an improv game to break the ice at the start of the session. (See “0. Yes, BUT… vs. Yes, AND…’ within the article.)

The mindset of this game played out during the rest of the session. I saw heads nod as participants shared stories, heard ideas expand in the room, and felt apart of something special. These two hours offered a glimpse of camaraderie among strangers based on their shared experiences.

Have time for feedback

My colleague and I used a simple and valuable framework for gathering participant feedback at the end of the session: the d.school’s “I like, I wish, What if.” Being open to feedback can only help us iterate and improve on future co-design sessions.

Participate in addition to facilitate

As facilitators, we fully embraced the “co-design” philosophy. We chose to share our own experiences with anxiety and immersed ourselves in the activities we created, in part because we were walking the journey, too, and in part to make participants feel more comfortable opening up about their own experiences.

During our “I Like, I Wish, What If” activity, someone shared that they appreciated the facilitators participating in the activities. Doing so can help break down the dynamic in the room. This tip may not be applicable for every co-design session, though, depending on the focus.

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Have any other tips for creating a supportive, welcoming co-design session? Please share them in the comments!

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