Since I started out as a children’s advocate in 2002 I’ve been searching for effective ways of involving children & young people in service development. Not ways where young people are just consulted with, nor where they lead the process and make the decisions, but where they are actively involved as equals, developing ideas and making decisions in genuine partnership with adults.
Last Saturday I experienced a great way: Innovation Labs.
Working with fifty designers, young people and youth professionals I watched us create feature lists, user journeys and pitches for seven digital ideas to support young people’s mental health.
Innovation Labs: a quick introduction
In October 2011 Comic Relief and partners commissioned the Cernis Partnership to run an Innovation Lab project for young people’s mental health. At Lab 1 we created 20 personi and generated 192 ideas. For two months we incubated the ideas within a social network, exploring and refining them down to a magnificent seven ideas. Then, last Saturday, at Lab 2 we subjected each idea to five intense hours of accelerated development before pitching them to each other and Comic Relief.
Those four user involvement things
I learnt four things from Innovation Labs, all of which are definitely useful when thinking about involving young people not only in digital innovation but also in service development.
1. Human centred design tools work really well
In the world of designers and entrepreneurs tools like personas, storyboards, and rough prototyping are extremely common. Despite being easy and quick to implement they are used infrequently in the user participation world. Voluntary sector, listen up!
They work because they provide a structured set of activities for exploring issues through the eyes of service users and a route map for achieving really tangible outputs (e.g. cereal box pitches) that are more than just a symbol of people’s involvement. Outputs are a coproduced product, in micro simple format.
2. Developing personas and user journeys makes a huge difference to the end result
Personas are “not real people or average users but user models described in detail to have the key attributes, needs, values, lifestyle, culture and personal background of the group they represent” (Giulia Piu). Personas needn’t just be service users either – try using a persona of a parent and see what happens!
User journeys are storyboards of 1 or more frames that describe how a persona interacts with a service or app and how they benefit. Empathy mapping can be used to deepen the experience further.
Both of these tools work because they put service users and professionals in the shoes of how someone other than themselves experiences a service or application, both before and after it’s been developed. Using them results in a better understanding of what is important for service users when they interact with the product or service. This in turn leads to more well-rounded ideas for developing it.
3. Voluntary sector values exist within commercial digital agencies
Most voluntary sector agencies pride themselves on being passionate, championing users and being led by those they work with. In general we’re less driven by institutional needs and more able to flex around individual needs.
Both the digital agencies we worked with on the Labs embodied these values in their approach, especially in their use of user centred design philosophy. Essentially user centred design tries to optimise a product or service around how users can, want, or need to use it, rather than forcing the users to change their behaviour to accommodate it. Neon Tribe and White October’s facilitators did the job of involving users better than many participation workers I know could have!
4. Initiatives like Innovation Labs can’t exist in big voluntary sector orgs
Cernis, like its digital partners, is a small organisation driven by smart and passionate people. We were commissioned to deliver the Labs through the Mental Health Foundation by Comic Relief, Nominet Trust and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. No one’s sure what form the Innovation Labs project will take next but it seems likely that any of the seven ideas that attract further funding will need organisational forms that include young people at their heart and can quickly grow them into sustainable start-ups.
Next steps for the Labs
Like most people who took part in the Labs I’m excited to see where the project goes next. However, I’m probably even more excited to do more exploring of where third sector values and digital design principles overlap, and how both sectors can come together to create shared missions and coexistences.
I co-managed the Innovation Labs project with Katie Brown. Read about what we learnt here.