Test, Adapt, Repeat: How to co-design online

5 Lessons learnt from the YLab Co-design challenge: With social isolation measures in place, our usual face to face workshops had to be adjusted. So, butcher’s paper, sharpies and a gratuitous amount of post-it notes were substituted for completely virtual spaces. From the many lessons learnt from this process, here were 5 insights that will help anyone looking to facilitate online

The work and employment experiences of young Australians have been severely impacted in the wake of COVID19. Prior to the pandemic, the youth unemployment rate was already three times higher than the National average. Young Australians are now facing unprecedented levels of unemployment which recently peaked at 16.1%. With challenges expected to be unrelenting for years to come, only now are we beginning to grasp just how young people have been, and will continue to be, disproportionately impacted. So, what can we do about it?

Since launching in 2016, YLab has worked across many projects spanning the work and employment systems young people are engaged in.  During COVID-19, we saw a unique opportunity to highlight the challenges young people face within employment structures.

Over the months of April and May, through co-design; centring lived experience in the design process, YLab sought to develop sustainable solutions to the employment challenges affecting young Australians and their communities as a result of COVID-19.

We worked with 8 YLab associates and 16 other diverse young people from around Australia to co-design these solutions. The catch:

None of us could ever be in the same room together. 

With social isolation measures in place, our usual face to face workshops had to be adjusted. So, butcher’s paper, sharpies and a gratuitous amount of post-it notes were substituted for completely virtual spaces.  From the many lessons learnt from this process, here were 5 insights that will help anyone looking to facilitate online:


Get in early


Shifting to online ways of working will require preparation and support for your participants. Without a physical space to bring people together and explore ideas, we needed an online interface that could provide true interaction and collaboration.

There are a number of different options available, such as Mural and Stormboard. We decided to use Miro for it’s simplicity and user-experience. We sent out invites and an information package to participants a week before our first workshop, inviting them to play around on miro and make sure they were ready to go. 

This became a key lesson throughout the project- Send things out as early as possible, and keep the reminders coming. It’s much easier to blow off a commitment online instead of in person, and by giving people an opportunity to explore new ways of working before the main event, we found that they picked things up very quickly.


Get s**t done in the in-between 

Set up your team so they have clear roles, goals & timelines. That means plan, pre-work and invest in a solid briefing. Remember that the time between your sessions is not just dead space - use it to power through tasks with your team and go deeper on your insights. For us, we wanted to test and iterate our findings between each of our 3 design sessions so that each time we came together, we had consulted with external young people and expanded our perspectives since the last workshop.

To facilitate this, we had interview templates, email copy and evaluation questionnaires prepped and ready to go. Participants had the tools, knowledge and foresight to know what they were doing and why, and we made the how as easy as possible. The result? We could get a herculean amount of work done in a relatively short amount of time.


Short, fun sprints

Engage through any means necessary. Being online can be isolating, and it’s easy to switch off, so plan your activities in short sprints and constantly give your participants tasks, that way they remain active and engaged. If one person is talking about an experience, get other group members scribing for them or writing down their own. If there’s too much silence going on while people are writing, get some music going over zoom. Also remember that staring at a screen for too long is draining, so make sure that in between your sprints you’re taking breaks and set a rule that everyone gets away from their screens to come back fresh!


Be ready for anything

Despite the advantages that tech brings, there are always going to be some complications. As hard as it may be to predict something like a participant’s roommate accidentally pulling out their modem mid-session, having your team be as prepared as possible can help you through it! (Thankfully we’d made our phone numbers accessible at the start of the day). 

As with running any session in person, it helps to plan with Murphy’s law in mind. When running sessions online there are even more things that can (and will) go wrong, so make sure that you have backup plans and backup plans for the backup plans. Take the time to sit down and visualise each stage of your session. What does it look like to you? How do you instruct your participants? What’s the worst possible thing that could happen? Figure out what could go wrong, and plan ahead for when (not if) it does. Also remember that it’s a team sport- make sure your team is up to date with your plans and everyone knows what their roles are when things invariably go south.

Hurry up and fail

Online facilitation is a different ball game, so be open to new ideas on how to do everything from preparing for your workshop to summarising your insights. Most importantly, be willing to fail! Fail forward- seek feedback and be willing to constantly adjust your methods. Build into your plan the time to actually get feedback from your participants to figure out what really needs tweaking for your next workshop- it’s the best way to get better fast! As we went, we constantly failed, learnt and adapted. Be humble enough to hear that something you did sucked, and then be brave enough to try new things until you find something that works. 

From our process, we co-designed 5 prototypes to address the pressing employment challenges that young people are facing, without ever being in the same room. The implications of this are hugely significant; it shows that the process of co-design is no longer limited by distance apart. This has the potential to create change in any corner of the globe. There are no longer restrictions on what is possible when it comes to engaging diverse young people to identify and design a better future.


This article has been written by
Akash Patel