Can you meaningfully co-design with excluded communities remotely?

The pandemic created a bigger shift in how the world works than we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes. Amid this transformative period, much has been said about the accelerated shift to remote collaboration, communication, and working—but what does this shift mean for co-designing with hard-to-reach communities?

Over the last 12 months, Here I Am Studio, in partnership with Girl Effect, embarked on a journey of discovery to understand if and how teams can meaningfully co-design with excluded communities remotely.

Now, we’re excited to share our learnings.

The project

Tujibebe is a Girl Effect brand that provides young Tanzanians with information and inspiration to help them make choices about their health, learning, and livelihood. Tujibebe reaches over 1.7million girls with content via digital channels, radio, an on-demand phone line, and club networks. However, digitally disconnected girls—often the girls most in need of support—are the most difficult to reach.

Girl Effect decided to overcome this hurdle by implementing a brand new medium of access—perhaps the most trusted but most underutilised asset: digitally connected girls.

This simple but powerful insight inspired the idea of a Girl Champion. A Girl Champion is a digitally connected girl who is given the information and support she needs to facilitate club sessions with digitally disconnected girls.

The challenge

Our challenge was to create a digital approach that enabled Girl Champions to safely and meaningfully share Tujibebe’s content so that both connected and disconnected girls could learn and grow together, thus impacting those who are least connected.

Our approach

First, we partnered with Restless Development Tanzania to recruit a group of Girl Champions to co-design with. The Girl Champions’ role was to provide creative direction and leadership, which entailed directing concept development, sharing ideas, and giving feedback throughout every step of the project. Our role was to help facilitate group decision-making and turn the girls’ visions and ideas into a digital product. It was imperative for the co-design process to be respectful—an approach we always aim to enact when working with hard-to-reach communities

The Girl Champions were paid for their involvement, and received a Here I Am Design Certificate following the project. We tried testing these different remote co-design methods:

  • Synchronous group
  • Asynchronous group
  • Asynchronous 1-2-1

When trialing each approach, we had a hunch which tasks might be best tackled in different environments, but we also braced ourselves to be wrong and forced to evolve. This framework breaks down this process and how it went.

So, what lessons did we learn about facilitating meaningful co-design remotely?

Create a co-design engagement plan

Map out the co-design journey before getting started. You’ll have frequent access to your users, but it’s not unlimited.Think carefully about how you want to use your time together to create the most value. We created an engagement plan that outlined every engagement session’s objective and approach. For example:

Engagement Plan

Focus on team building first

Building rapport remotely can be challenging. Host an introductory live session before diving into tasks to better get to know one another. Throughout the project, always allow time to be playful and go off-topic with every engagement. These in-between moments can soften the process while offering really valuable insights.

Don’t fall into jargon traps

Understanding tasks can be more difficult to do remotely - especially via unstable internet connections. Using jargon will create further confusion. Many people don’t know what a ‘concept’ is—let alone an MVP, prototype, or wireframe. Always be self aware of the language you’re using. Simplify, simplify, and then simplify some more. Ask the group to re-explain the task to validate their comprehension. When there are breakaway exercises, do mini check-ins every ten minutes to track the path of progress.

If possible, do not do live translation

Live translation disrupts the natural conversation flow and can double session times, making for a really inefficient, clunky exercise. When live translation can’t be avoided, think carefully about how to minimise back and forth communication. Be as simple and concise as possible when sharing information.

Ensure everyone’s voice is heard

Group sessions are great for extroverts, but it’s crucial to create space for quieter people to have their voice heard, too. Actively ask for each participant’s opinions and give plenty of warning—some people prefer time to prepare their ideas. Asynchronous communications — especially 1-2-1 — is another great way to ensure everyone has their voice heard.

Homework tasks are great for deeper reflection

During this project, we gave the Girl Champions homework tasks which were great for gaining deeper feedback without group influence. One homework task that really added value to the project involved each girl pitching concepts to their friends. If the girls couldn't explain the idea to their friends or their friends didn't react positively to it, we knew we would have to go back to the drawing board. Luckily, the friends’ feedback was really positive.

Blend asynchronous and synchronous for the best results

Synchronous communication is best for building rapport, gaining a deeper understanding of the participants, and briefing new tasks. Asynchronous communication is best for gaining richer ideas and deeper, more thoughtful feedback on concepts, storyboards, wireframes. We recommend utilising this circular approach, shown below.

Blend asynchronous and synchronous

The value of remote co-design for excluded groups

Remote co-design can add pivotal value. There’s still a lot of learning to be done for a refined approach, but we believe this project validates that remote co-design is possible.

Working remotely together as a team over a longer time period builds a richer, deeper understanding of your users. We got to know our users in the same way we know our teammates—which is pretty unique experience, considering programmes, policies, and products made for excluded people are often designed based on a single research report. This deeper understanding adds so much texture and value which leads to better digital products that are relevant and useful to excluded people.

Thank you to Restless Development Tanzania and the brilliant team of Girl Champions for your ideas, opinions, patience, and relentless energy.

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