What makes for good co-design with young people?

16th March 2017

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What makes for good co-design with young people? We had a chance to put this to the test when in early March 2017 when myself and Mark Brown were tasked with discovering ‘what a fantastic inpatient CAMHS service should look and feel like for the young people, their families and CAMHS staff in Hull’. The brief was wide which enabled us to have some fun, co-designing with young people in a couple of workshops at The Warren, Hull.

Discovery workshops

The workshops were well attended by young people from various organisations, such as MINDThe Warren and SMASH (Social Mediation And Self Help), as well as representatives from CAMHS, NHS England Improvement and the director of children’s services for Humber. The young people had a lot to say about current services and knew what they wanted from them in the future.

Mark kicked off both evenings with energy and enthusiasm organising attendees into groups of four to six. We began with a ‘persona exercise’.

Personas were once used to represent average user groups, and were created by researchers after studying demographics and typical users related to the project. So you might end up with the white young male with a briefcase and 9-5 job… or the middle-class family with 2.4 children and a dog. These people don’t exist. At mHabitat we have a different approach, a person centered approach. We encourage participants to either build a composite persona, or tell us about themselves.

During the discovery workshops in Hull, participants had a mixture of persona templates to choose from which contained an image of a young person and boxes with questions to complete. The young people got to work straight away. For some groups, using the persona sheet enabled them to open up and express challenges and aspirations without the exercise being specifically about them. These groups ended up creating composite personas - a mixture of everyone’s thoughts and feelings, some true, some made up.

Other individuals wanted to write about themselves, their challenges, experiences and goals so I gave them blank persona sheets that had a structure to work around but freedom to express themselves. This got me thinking about the use of personas in discovery work…..

Image stick people thin

How personas work in co-design

composite persona, built up of mixed experiences and thoughts can sometimes be easier to write for participants, however it won’t ever fully capture the life of a real person. When a participant writes or tells us about themselves, we get a real picture of their life, their struggles and challenges - this can be more useful down the line. Designers will use these personas when developing an idea to keep them on the right tracks, and it’s often easier to empathise with a real person.

Designers also need to understand the experiences of people that have many struggles and challenges (sometimes called extreme users), rather than the ‘typical user group’. This way, if a design can meet the needs of the extreme users, it can often meet the needs of a typical user.

Considering the above, it’s important to get a diverse mix of ‘extreme users’ in the room, and offer them the option of creating a composite persona or writing about themselves, but to remember to encourage everyone to make the output as real as possible.


After sharing our personas with the room (really important to do this, see following paragraph), it was time to generate as many ideas as possible. Mark encouraged everyone to think BIG and to not be restricted by potential cost or difficulties implementing. Now is the chance to dream and tell us what you would want, in an ideal world.

A good starting point for generating ideas, is the personas ‘challenges’. In this section of the workshop we aim to tackle and prevent these challenges through new ideas. We also need to think about the other personas in the room - can we tackle their challenges too? It can be useful to ask participants to swap personas, so they can consider other perspectives.

Build it

The groups now pick an idea that they all agree could make a big difference to the young people, families and staff of CAMHS services in Hull. They are tasked with developing the idea and then building it to share with the group. It’s important that during this process, they refer back to a persona, or two, to see if the idea is meeting their needs. Is this idea allowing your personas to meet their goals?

I think this part of the workshop needs to be facilitated carefully… in the first workshop, when the young people were given prototyping materials upfront, their ideas were possibly restricted by what they were given. For example, one young person drew a floor plan for a new inpatient unit - whilst it was an excellent idea she was restricted to the dimensions of the paper and the fact that it was 2D, and so created a rectangular, one floor unit. Another group’s decisions were swayed by the fact that they wanted to use the lego…

We decided to make some alterations to the second workshop to ensure that the ideas being developed weren’t restricted or influenced by us or the materials provided. We gave the groups 10-15 minutes thinking time, with just post-its and paper to develop their idea and think about the key features and how it might look and feel. I visited each group to hear their idea and then provided them with appropriate prototyping materials to build their idea. Some groups used lego, others coloured paper and pens, and others plasticine.

Case Study CAMHS Tier 4 Image 1

Final thoughts

It’s been really exciting to work with young people during the early stages of a project like this, we hope that this is the start of a young-person-centered process for developing inpatient CAMHS services in Hull. Through the discovery workshops, we were able to gather inspiring stories, priorities and principles for the project and we left Hull with a bunch of really creative ideas, all of which are inspired by real life experiences. We look forward to see what happens next...