Prototyping a Network-level Design Research Process

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One of the guiding principles of the Hive Research Lab model is a tight coupling between practice and research. Practical needs and concerns informed the development of our core research questions, and ideas from the academic literature base and the basic research we’re conducting are meant to inform practice on the ground. And the idea of engaging in co-design experiments with Hive NYC network members emerged from this same spirit of being an applied laboratory at the intersection of theory and practice. All of this sounds well and good on paper (and in theory!), but the actual nuts and bolts of collaboratively developing new things within the network and then researching them is quite complicated and has potentially infinite permutations on the ground. So in developing what this design process would look like in practice, we went back to our first principle – tight coupling between researchers and practitioners. We knew we had to talk to and work with Hivers even as we were planning and developing the practical aspects of the co-design research work to make sure that we get it right when we do our full fledge launch of that work (we always joke about how meta we are in the lab…).

So in late October, we held a prototyping and focus group session with a group of Hive NYC members about our co-design research process. In doing so, there was a lot that we wanted to get feedback on. What sort of value did they think Hive members might get from participating? What did they see as likely challenges? Had they engaged in cross-organizational co-design processes before? If so, what worked or didn’t work in the past? Prior to our session we brainstormed probably a dozen and a half questions that we’d been chewing on and that we thought this group might help us to answer. We knew full well that we wouldn’t be able to get answers to everything, but also knew that having a good sense of our “known unknowns” would allow us to make the most use of the collective intelligence of the group.

Based on the core areas we were curious about, we structured the half day meeting into two parts: engaging in a mock (and rapid) design activity around the issue of supporting youth trajectories and pathways, and then having a free flowing, focus group-esque conversation where the group both reflected on the design activity they just engaged in and gave feedback on what it might look like to engage in a more prolonged and robust collaborative design process with Hive members.

While we won’t go through the blow by blow of the design activity and the entire conversation that followed, we did want to share what we saw as the major points of feedback that the group provided:

  • Provide a very clear sense of the value proposition for participation in a collaborative design process.
  • In providing a value proposition, give prospective participants rationales that both speak to them personally (as people likely already invested in the idea of Hive to varying degrees) as well as ones they can use within their organization to justify taking the time, effort, and, potentially, organizational resources that might be required.
  • It’s likely much easier for Hive members to plan ahead to participate in a 1-2 day intensive charette or hack jam style event than it might be for ongoing engagement over the course of a, say, six week process. One model to consider might be holding an intensive charette and then empowering and supporting groups and projects that come out of that in a more tailored fashion that doesn’t need to involve all original participants.
  • Be sure to capture what Hive members see as core challenges to reaching the design objectives that they’d be working towards.
  • Frame problems and possible design solutions in “if/then” format. For example, “If we want to better support robust youth trajectories and pathways for learners in Hive NYC, then we need <insert design solution/proposal/practice/project here>.”
  • Don’t shy away from presenting participating Hivers with very specific design problems that are sub-issues within the areas of interest, just being sure to leave space for them to totally do their own thing. For instance, for the goal of better supporting youth trajectories and pathways, we can leave that as a basic design space to work in, but also provide specific areas such as “design a way to improve pop-up events so that they operate as ‘on-ramps’ into further engagement”‘ or “design a way that youth coming from Hive member organizations can find internships in areas they’re interested in”, etc.

Moving forward, we’re going to take the feedback we got and work in the next month or so to solidify our plans for the first co-design cycle to launch after the new year. In doing so, we’ll combine what we learned from this prototyping session with the insights from related research methodologies including design-based implementation researchparticipatory design, and participatory action research to gain additional perspective on what others have done, the challenges they’ve faced, and the successes they’ve had.

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