Good social change

User-centred design in behaviour change practice

User-centred design –nice buzzwords, but is it any good? And what does it mean for social marketing practice?

In business there are always buzz-phrases, buzz-ideas, buzz-practices. At the moment, there’s a lot of buzz around the idea of user-centred design and its co-practices, audience-centred design, co-design, UX and design thinking.

Consultancies are setting up units, bursting with post-it notes, sharpie pens and creative workshop spaces. Organisations and Government departments are setting up co-design labs, lightning labs, investing in design thinking workshops and holding nudgeathons.

So what’s all the fuss about? Is user-centred design any good? And what does it mean for behaviour change and social marketing practitioners?

So what is it?

User-centred design is an approach where you bring participants together to problem solve, generally using some sort of experiential workshopping process. Generally the participants are representatives of the group that will be using the service or product you’re designing.

It has its roots in the functional design of products, services and facilities. The most oft-quoted examples are where users have been involved in the design of physical spaces and concrete things.

In this context it’s genuinely exciting: where designers once had free rein, now consumers are allowed to have a voice.   No, it’s not practical to put the car parks 500m away from the emergency clinic because that’s a long way to carry my sick child and not everyone has a partner who will drop them at the door; please don’t make the play centre foyer split level, how will I get my buggy around?

Challenges with user-centred design

But there are some challenges when you introduce it into more theoretical or abstract contexts, or when you use participants who are not representative of your target group.

This is because a key tenet of co-design is that users, as ‘experts’ of their own experience, become central to the design process.

But humans are not always experts in their own experience. So much of human behaviour is driven by non-rational or unconscious forces, that we often cannot identify how we will actually behave or respond in any situation – worse than that, our predictions are often completely contradictory to reality.

This means you have to be incredibly careful about any process in which you ask people to design communications, or services, for themselves. They will often design them for their own ideal or hypothetical selves – missing the mark of what they really need or would actually respond to, by some distance

You have to be very careful about what you ask of people, how you ask it, how you interpret your findings, and what you do as a result.

You can work around these problems. If it’s done well, user-centred design will allow for this failing, and will mitigate it by using experts in human psychology to design approaches, inquiries and questions that will elicit useful input, by creating contexts that allow the facilitators to make their own observations about behaviour and preferences alongside participant input, and by ensuring that other forms of data are used to supplement the findings.

Principles for good practice

In implementing user-centred design there are some key principles to consider.

First, user-centred design needs to be embedded in culture – grounded principally in the culture of your participants, but also linked to your own organisation’s values. Your organisation must be genuinely committed to being guided by the user input.

Second, it has to be systematic. It needs to be brought in early in any process, and carried through to the end. Many definitions of user-centred design talk about involving users in the formulation as well as the solution of the problem – and users also need to be included, consulted and informed throughout your process.

Next, it needs to be fit for purpose. Use it to gather the information you need, and that you can realistically gather from the process. Don’t use it as a substitute for more robustly-sourced data. Try not to use it for theoretical exercises; try to focus it on practical experience.

Your approach also needs to be respectful of people’s circumstances, their lived reality, their cultural context and their capability. If you want to succeed, you need to meet them where they are, even if it’s not convenient to you. This involves adequately preparing participants for their involvement, keeping them informed throughout the process, ensuring there is mutual and equivalent value from the engagement.

And lastly, it needs to be well-resourced. Effective collaboration and co-creation take time and money. Organisations need to ensure they and their partners are adequately resourced to see the process through properly, and that the burden does not lie too heavily on any partner.

Empowerment and citizenship

One final note – to take the buzz-word metaphor just a little further: it’s not all about the honey. Yes, user-centred design can deliver valuable ideas – but it is often equally valuable for the benefits that arise for participants through their participation in the process itself.

“[User-centred design] has a political dimension of user empowerment and democratisation.” (Wikipedia)

Like bees, user-centred design is also critical for its role in pollination, and strengthening eco-systems. User-centred design, when it’s done well, can result in citizen empowerment, capability building, community strengthening.

So what does all this mean for social marketers?

Gathering and making sense of audience insight is central to good social marketing. Buzz-word or not, it’s what we’ve been doing for the many decades our practice has been operating.

Where social marketing hasn’t always been strong is in the area of citizenship – genuinely involving participants in our programmes, grounding our practice in communities, and working with communities to create positive social change.

We can learn from the best examples of user-centred design to build this aspect of our practice – and help others avoid the worst examples when we see them.



WorkSafe New Zealand, The Southern Initiative and ACC for access to and involvement in co-design programmes and approaches.

SenateSHJ for permission to reference the principles for user-centred design, developed when I worked there.


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