About Nesta

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

Sharing power – democratising the design research experience

Real people, the real world and “messiness” is what drives innovation

When we think about designing services, experiences, products or systems for a specific group of people, these people can quickly get thought of as one homogenous “blob”. However, within each group are many different people who embody a wide spectrum of experience, needs and ability. Exploring and embracing different perspectives and engaging those who are often considered ”atypical” requires building trust and relationships with people early in the design process.

Building relationships, actively listening and spending time observing can help teams gain a deeper understanding of the different contexts that surround people's lives and the decisions they make. Capturing these elements through the creation of user profiles (or personas) is an ongoing process. Personas can be used as a tool by designers to amplify end users' voices and life contexts so that their real-life experiences are at the heart of the design process. Personas can also help us focus on the needs of those whose experiences lie outside of the majority; people with needs that, if not considered, might be harmed by our designs. Designing with and for these groups presents a wonderful opportunity to innovate, leading to cutting-edge, nuanced designs that work better for everyone.

"Designing with and for diverse groups presents a wonderful opportunity to innovate, leading to cutting-edge, nuanced designs that work better for everyone."

Don’t ignore the power in the room

For social researchers and research participants, there can be a social position and power dynamic that puts barriers in the way of effective research. Finding common ground and taking a curious, human-to-human (rather than researcher-to-participant) approach are essential. Reflecting on the critical value of lived experience with the whole project team can also help reorientate the way that teams view the people they are researching with and the way people see themselves. Participants become experts in the problem the team is seeking to solve, rather than passive recipients of whatever the team is designing for them.

Gathering richer and more profound insights from people with diverse needs

People we want to learn from and about might not always be able to share their perspectives or experiences in ways traditionally used by researchers, eg, through one-to-one or group interviews. Early research planning must consider different ways to facilitate an environment where people are able to share. This could take different forms.

  • If hosting a workshop, it could look like:
    • making sure helpers are available to support people discreetly if they have language barriers or issues with reading and writing
    • use observers to capture non-verbal responses and communication in the room
    • use applied theatre and other creative practices to create research activities which are fun, playful and accessible – Nesta’s fairer start team recently worked with a theatre practitioner to do exactly this in some workshops with parents living in areas of high social and economic deprivation. The activities prompted greater-than-expected levels of engagement and deeper sharing.
    • If carrying out remote research, it could look like giving people the opportunity to respond in diverse ways other than writing eg, voice recordings.
  • If carrying out ethnographic research, it could mean offering creative ways for people to share their day, eg, using disposable cameras or picture diaries to capture daily touchpoints.

Empowering people to be collaborators, co-owners and sometimes co-authors of a project will directly impact them and others in their community

People who are being designed with and for should be offered early opportunities to be involved in the development of a project. User research, prototyping, testing and embedding learning from feedback (iteration) is an essential part of the inclusive design process that can help designers and project teams quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. Sharing power means key decision-making moments (traditionally led by project team members who may not have any relevant lived experience or interaction with target users) can be influenced by the people we’re designing with and for. Following this process creates a much higher chance of design that actually works and prevents project team assumptions and biases creating a service, product, experience or system that won’t address users’ needs. It can also mean secondary project outputs (eg, reports) are more fully representative of groups or communities. For example, it’s important to use language that doesn't exacerbate already existing inequalities or misrepresentations of a specific group or community.

A warm and welcoming invitation is not enough

Meaningfully involving people in a design process needs more than a simple invitation to join a workshop and “come co-create with us”.

There can be all sorts of barriers to people accessing opportunities – time constraints, financial needs, childcare challenges, lack of confidence and anxieties about being able to participate equally in activities and discussions to name a few. Understanding these barriers and developing innovative strategies to address them is the starting point for an upcoming project Nesta is working on with parents living in areas of high social and economic deprivation and inter-generational disadvantage. We want parents to be equal partners in the design and development of a creative experience which aims to develop parent mindsets around their role as children’s first educators. For that to happen, we need to understand first and foremost what they need to participate equally.

Examples of what has worked from other projects include offering financial compensation, such as vouchers to pay people for their time as well as creche facilities. Being realistic about the time people can give and making sure to use that time for maximum impact is crucial. Orientation activities to reassure, build confidence, develop key skills and stress the crucial importance and role of lived experience in the design process can also help.

The process of discovering what people need to meaningfully participate or collaborate should be approached in the same way the entire design process is considered – by finding out what their needs are and creatively responding to them. In this way, we stand the best chance of building the democratic, inclusive, equitable teams we need to solve some of our biggest social challenges.


Imran Nazerali

Imran Nazerali

Imran Nazerali

Designer, Design and Technology

Imran Nazerali is a designer who cares about people.

View profile
Emma McFarland

Emma McFarland

Emma McFarland

Design Lead, fairer start mission

Emma was design lead for the fairer start mission, integrating design and digital innovation practice in the mission’s work to catalyse impactful and scalable innovation.

View profile