How to respectfully co-design with hard-to-reach communities

Human Centred Design (HCD) is an iterative, mercurial process of divergent and convergent thinking, happening over and over, exploring multiple options, narrowing down to a single concept, and then breaking that concept open into 20 different versions. Throughout this cycle, there is a continuous need for feedback to know which one is The One that will lead to the concept that creates the biggest impact. Design Squiggle Frequent, meaningful collaboration with hard-to-reach communities throughout this iterative journey has historically been an expensive, logistical kerfuffle.

As a result, it rarely happens. And when it does, project teams, not community members, set the terms. Typically, there is a single workshop, and participants are told to meet at X location at X time, for X number of hours.

After this session, the project team disappears in a flurry of post-it-notes, never to be seen again.

But. Now.

People, even the hardest to reach, are becoming easier to reach. And they can be reached frequently and inexpensively. The HCD process no longer needs to be a single smash-and-grab workshop IRL. Today it can happen via SMS, whatsapp, WeChat, phone calls, and even in a group where one friend shares their smartphone with the others.

With this brand new, unprecedented line of communication comes the opportunity to change the way we engage, and more importantly, to finally do it respectfully.

So. How do we engage communities respectfully?

Well. We ask them.

At Here I Am, during project kick off we create ‘Rules of Engagement’ that define the best ways to understand, involve and respect the actual humans we are designing for, throughout the HCD process.

It’s a very simple, but rarely done step. How we gather this information is driven by advice from participants and local partners. It can be in virtual sessions or individually via phone calls or even SMS. To create these Rules of Engagement (which change for each project), we ask people:

How to reach them: Are they phone owners or borrowers? Do they have smartphones or feature phones? Do they have laptops? Do they have access to WiFi or need to pay for their credit? How comfortable do they feel using digital technology? What communication methods and platforms are they using / familiar with? FigJam Board When to engage them: What is their daily routine? Do they work? Are they at school? What commitments do they have at home? When is their free time? How much time can they spare for the project? How much do they want to be involved? Whose permission do they need?

How to ensure they feel comfortable: Would they prefer to participate with a buddy, a family member or alone? Would they prefer to share their opinions with a familiar face or anonymously?

How to overcome or accommodate physical or emotional challenges that might affect their ability to participate: Visual, Hearing, Dexterity, PTSD, ADHD, anxiety to name a few. If so, what tools or techniques do they use to overcome or accommodate these, if any?

How to ensure they fully understand what their participation means: What’s their experience of participating in similar activities? See our informed consent process for ensuring comprehension.

The value exchange: How do we ensure they gain something from the process? How can we fairly reward them for their contribution without creating bias? Would they like to be publicly acknowledged for their involvement or would they like to keep their contribution private?

How to close the feedback loop: Do they want to be updated on the progress or outcome of the project? If so, how frequently, and for how long? See our closing the feedback loop framework for more detail.


Our Rules of Engagement are providing the foundations for Here I Am to conduct respectful HCD, and now that we've seen how effective it can be, we've created a public checklist for all to use.

We invite you to use this checklist for your own projects, or as a simple reminder of how to respectfully co-design with hard-to-reach communities.

Now, all that’s left to do is, well, ask them (and listen to what they say).

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