Design makes us human. And it starts with a story…

Knowledge and expertise traditionally filter from the top down when designing services and products. While this works for many commercial brands, in the social sector it can result in ideas that fail to meet the real needs of those they aim to serve.

At Colour-in City we design for social impact by starting with people, not the idea. We design socially, creating meaningful products and services together with the people who use and deliver them. We design systematically, listening and trusting in people’s expertise and knowledge from all layers of a system.

We’re currently exploring how parents living in overcrowded social housing can use digital technology to reduce stress and increase wellbeing.

Towards the end of 2016, we spent time with parents in their homes to gain insight into their everyday lives. We carried out two group co-design workshops; one with parents, one with local service providers.

Our aim was to understand, in parents’ own words, what supports and what gets in the way of their wellbeing. From this shared starting point, we could begin designing together a digital tool for parents to track, use and share data about their everyday experiences.  

Colour-in City is part of a bigger project exploring how we can create good future cities using digital technology, data and co-creation with citizens.

In previous blog posts we’ve talked about our process of human-centred design and reflected on how learning from people’s lived experience has challenged our thinking about what wellbeing means.

In this post we’ll more fully introduce the people we’re designing this digital tool with and for. For confidentiality, all details have been anonymised.

What happens when we start with people’s stories?

‘Maybe stories are just data with a soul.’ Brené Brown

At the co-design workshop, we shared the story of one mum’s experience of overcrowded housing, gathered during ethnographic research – the time we spent with her at home.

While she is at the extreme end of overcrowding, a single parent sharing one bedroom with her three children, through her story we found experiences and emotions that other parents understood, echoed or added to. These included:

  • The impact of limited space on their children’s play, learning and development, especially as children became teenagers and needed their own space.
  • Feeling overwhelmed physically and emotionally by the amount of stuff around them at home. Clothes, bedding, toys, games, shopping all crammed into one or two rooms. Not knowing where to start to bring about order.
  • A sense of shame in their living conditions, not wanting to invite people over, feeling isolated. At the same time, desire for connection, if they could just find someone who knew what it felt like.
  • Support from family was a lifeline; people without this felt more alone and were frustrated the difference wasn’t taken into account by local services.
  • Feeling invisible to local services, not meeting criteria for support, or falling between boundary lines.
  • The risk of losing their personal identity into being ‘a mum’ and just getting by. The importance of taking time for themselves and their interests, from a few minutes alone to breathe, to an hour at the gym, to a course at college.
  • How doing this helped them care for their families, yet it was so difficult when times were hard. At these points it was enough to get the basics done for the children.

As important as the stories we share at co-design workshops is the reaction they trigger from citizens and service providers. At these sessions we noticed a few things.

There was an immediate sense of empathy and of sadness to see someone struggling, from parents and service providers. Parents shared their own experiences in response, where they overlapped or differed, their frustrations, their coping strategies, where they found support. Service providers connected with the person whose story we shared beyond simply her needs as a parent or tenant.

And there was a desire to help, to connect. Service providers suggested places that could offer support or advice, at the same time as being aware this doesn’t always get to the people who need it most. Parents wanted to offer reassurance and hope, and came up with ways to support this mum whose name they didn’t know but whose story felt close to their own.

Design for me, with me

‘All goods and services are designed. The urge to design – to consider a situation, imagine a better situation, and act to create that improved situation – goes back to our pre-human ancestors. Making tools helped us to become what we are today – design helped to makes us human.’

Ken Friedman and Erik Stolterman, Editors, Design Thinking/Design Theory Series

At Colour-in City we take the human urge to design seriously. That’s what co-design, or designing together is about. Enabling and equipping people to be involved in designing their own support not only acknowledges the human urge to design, it gives people their due respect as fellow designers and makers.

So while we start with a story, that’s not where parents’ involvement ends.


Designing with parents at the workshop


During the co-design workshop we moved from sharing stories and experiences to drawing out insights and design principles, making storyboards for how the digital tool could work, agreeing the problems it would solve and the outcomes it might achieve.

Our design principles, key insights from parents, will guide us throughout the experiment to make sure the digital tool fits their needs and experiences. They include:

  1. Help me to feel less isolated, to connect to people similar to me, to know what support is available  
  2. Help services to understand me as an individual
  3. Help me to have time and space to breathe
  4. Help me to make and see progress in my wellbeing
  5. Help me to find things to do with my children outside my home

In the next blog post we’ll discuss how we’re incorporating these as well as other insights and ideas into our first prototype of the digital wellbeing tool.


Parents’ prototype ideas for the digital tool


We’ll also explore gaps in our research and recruitment. For example, so far we’ve heard about the experience of mums. What about dads?

We’ll share our co-design tools on our website later this month. Let us know if you find them useful, or have suggestions for how we could add to these.

As always, for more about this experiment visit our about page, read about the team and get in touch here. We’d love to hear from you.

Blog post authors: Emma Field and Rebecca Birch, Colour-in City

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