Experiences in co-design - successes, failures, and lessons learned

12 Jul, 2022

This information was presented in two group discussions at the Digital Transformation and Data in Government NZ conference 2022, held at Sky Stadium Wellington, 25th – 26th May. 

The attendees were from various parts of the New Zealand public sector, working in a variety of roles both customer-facing and operational.

Over two days these discussions were held with two different groups totaling over 80 individuals, all sharing their experiences and learnings of co-design in the public arena, with us also sharing some of ours. 

We would like to offer our sincere appreciation to all the participants in these conversations. Your knowledge, learning, and willingness to share information made these sessions engaging and informative and gave us a lot to think about as we continue our co-design journey.

What is co-design?

There is no universally accepted definition of co-design, however, it is generally accepted it stems from Scandinavia in the 70’s when the cooperative design movement arose from trade unions as a reaction against being omitted from the design process of technologies in the workplace. 

“Co-design is the act of creating with stakeholders (business or customers) specifically within the design development process to ensure the results meet their needs and are usable.” (medium.com).

How does AMS co-design

Co-design is simply the process by which we can move from designing systems for our clients to designing systems with our clients. The difference may seem slight, but the co-design end product is one that is specific to the needs and challenges of the client; the client doesn’t have to find a way to work with the software, the software works for the client. 

AMS has seven themes that are required for successful co-design. We find that when these conditions are met the resulting product is truly fit for the purpose of the individual client. 


Collaboration between customers, stakeholders, designers, and anyone else involved in the co-design process. All stakeholders must be involved, consulted, and engaged in the design process.

Shared Power

All stakeholders must have shared power. The seniority of roles does not give weight to the knowledge, needs, or opinions of participants. All participants are equal.

Lived Experience

Practical or lived experiences are at least as valuable as technical experience. This encompasses people who work in the field as well as the customers, the people who receive the service. 


There needs to be open, fearless conversation during co-design. This can only happen with trust.


All participants come in with an open mind to enable the outcome to develop organically without preconceived ideas.

Courage to release

The project is to be released as each part is developed, or a milestone is reached. This allows feedback and improvement during the development process.

Build Capacity

All users must understand the end product and be able to use it.

Examination of co-design examples shared

There were some great examples of co-design shared by participants and we have summarised these below.

The Christmas tree chemotherapy needle

In one DHB, a nurse raised that there was a particular chemotherapy needle that was scaring children due to its shape. It was shaped like a Christmas tree. 

After some discussion between medical staff, it was decided that children might be less afraid of this needle if it was decorated like a Christmas tree, a symbol that most children would like and feel comforted by. 

The medical staff moved into designing a decorated needle for children that would resemble a Christmas tree.

Unfortunately, due to Health and Safety concerns, this project was not able to be completed.

However, after this project, the idea of designs appealing to children led to co-designing decorated plaster casts to help children accept having to wear them after a broken bone. 

Starship now offers a vivid to every child that goes home with a cast, so they can create their own designs. 

Co-design of a mental health product

Another co-design experience that was shared was in the mental health space.

An NGO had a concept or a vision for a product that would make life better for the end-user, being the individuals who used the mental health service. 

This software was envisioned by technical people who didn’t work hands-on in mental health and has no personal experience receiving care from a mental health service. 

Fortunately, before there was too much time and effort expended in scoping the project, it was decided that the lived experience people (those that have the practical experience, or who live with the problem the tool was designed to help with) should be consulted. 

During the consultation, it was quickly apparent that the lived experience people required a far simpler, and less expensive, version of the project. The project as it was initially perceived could be considered a failure as the vision never came to fruition, however, the co-design of the project yielded a new, user-friendly vision that was based on the customer’s needs, it was fit for purpose, faster and easier to produce and yielded a better, more simplistic outcome.

Whilst we are not able to share all the details of the project, we can see how this example of co-design was successful as it adhered to the principles of co-design. 

Co-designing a digital strategy

A final example shared was that of a DHB’s regional IT arm being charged with creating a digital strategy. 

After some discussion, the IT department came back to the DHB and explained that they were not the right people to design the digital strategy, it needed to be led by the DHB’s stakeholders, based on their needs and requirements. 

The DHB engaged in co-design with the IT division, they dreamed up the digital strategy and the IT department made it happen, with the software, hardware, and building the capabilities of the end-user to ensure the tool was fit for purpose. 

Finding the right co-design partner

If you wish to embark on a co-design journey, it is essential that you find the right company to partner with. Not every company is willing, or able, to engage in co-design, and choosing the wrong partner will doom the project from the start.

First and foremost, you need to partner with a company that owns its own product.

If you partner with a reseller, or distributor, who offers a product that they do not own they do not have the ability to modify it in any way, removing any possibility of co-design now, or in the future. 

Look for a company that recognises the value in co-design and that actively promotes it as an option. 

As a customer, you do not want to be in a position where you have to drive a co-design process with a supplier. You want them to be driven to co-design, to lead the process, and believe that it will result in the best outcome. The more experienced they are in co-design the more they will be able to lead the process for you to ensure the best outcome. 

Find a supplier that has a clear, logical, and proven method for engaging in co-design.

You want a supplier that can clearly outline how co-design will work, how the product will be designed, and how it will be implemented. Make sure they don’t just walk away once the design is finished, you want a supplier who will continue to engage and build the capabilities of your team for years to come. 

Why is co-design the way of the future?

Co-design is a powerful tool that, when used correctly, results in a product that is better than any party or stakeholder could produce alone. It is customer-focused, individually designed, and provides tailored solutions to problems that users experience. 

We believe co-design is the future because it is focused on meeting the needs of the customer and is designed specifically for them. 

We consistently find customers are sick of being told their software can’t do things they need, or that they just have to live with issues they have with current products. Our clients expect and deserve a product that ticks all the boxes, that make life easy, and delivers the outcomes they want.

That is co-design.  

If you are looking for a company to start your co-design journey with, contact us today and see how we can work with you to achieve your best outcome.