group meeting

How to plan effective co-design

Insights from the Building Connections Fund for tackling loneliness

By Michelle Man 16 December 2019 6 minute read

A version of this blog was originally published by the What Works Centre for Wellbeing.  


At the start of 2019, we were asked to lead the learning and evaluation partnership for the Building Connections Fund, a joint initiative by the government, the National Lottery Community Fund and the Co-op Foundation to reduce loneliness.  

One of the big lessons from this project is that loneliness affects all kinds of people and in different ways. At Christmastime many charities will be campaigning for action on loneliness, so what can we learn from the Building Connections Fund about what works? 

As part of the Building Connections Fund’s wider work to tackle loneliness, 144 short-term grants were awarded to co-design projects aimed at tackling loneliness among young people. Many of these projects tried to maximise community spaces by refurbishing or repurposing underused facilities.  

We conducted a qualitative evaluation of these projects. Here’s what we learnt about what co-design achieved, and how you can maximise and evaluate the benefits of working in this way. 


What does co-design mean for young people?

Co-design is when an organisation and its stakeholders work together to design or rethink a service. We found that co-design created valuable conversations which changed how young people thought about and understood loneliness.  

Our evaluation found that co-design:  

  • Enabled young people to influence service-delivery, so charities could improve their work to tackle loneliness.  
  • Led to changes that aren’t specific to loneliness. For the young people, participating in co-design often resulted in increased confidence and empowerment. This in turn impacted other areas of their lives, such as school work, behaviour, and interpersonal skills.  
  • Influenced how charities approach their work, by generating useful insights and ideas, and improving decision-making about service-delivery.  


What are the challenges for effective co-design?

Good co-design takes time to plan, set up, recruit participants, encourage and sustain engagement, and ensure participants can contribute fully. This is especially important when participants require additional support, for example those with language barriers, cognitive disabilities and mental health issues. The projects we evaluated lasted around three months, so time was naturally a challenge.  

Additionally, some staff identified unrealistic expectations among participants, particularly younger age groups. To manage expectations, staff tried to communicate objectives clearly and explain the effect of constraints such as time, money and safety on co-design activities. 


How can you evaluate co-design?

There is a long tradition of involving young people in the design of youth work and it is clear that co-design can unlock positive outcomes for participants, organisations, and communities. What is less widely embedded are approaches for assessing the effectiveness and impact of co-design.  

This is understandable as evaluating co-design can be tricky. Different participants are likely to engage with co-design in different ways. How do you evaluate a range of activities and experiences? What if your co-design is delivered as a process, rather than a distinct intervention? You may not have predefined outcomes for your co-design from the start.  


1. Set clear objectives for your co-design at the start

Evaluating co-design can be challenging but all organisations can create space to reflect on experiences and emerging insights. As a first step, it’s vital to be clear about the purpose of your co-design. For example, your objective may be to redesign a service to better reflect user needs, or you may want to strengthen relationships between staff and volunteers. You need to know where you are going to know if you are heading in the right direction.  


2. Know who should take part in your co-design

To understand the benefits you’re achieving, you need to understand if you’re including the right people in co-design. You also need to find out what participants think of your co-design processes, what changes are being achieved for them in the short-term, and whether these changes lead to longer-term outcomes for participants.  

It is important to consider if there are any risks or potential harm to participants. For example, a mismatch in expectations could result in frustration, distress, and loss of trust.  

These risks could be higher for certain groups, such as people with physical health conditions, as it may require a disproportionate effort from them to engage with the co-design. Risks and safeguarding processes should be reviewed regularly.  


3. Assess the quality of your co-design

For these Building Connections Fund projects, how co-design was delivered and experienced was critical to achieving outcomes. Two factors helped enable positive experiences for participants:  

  • Cultivating a sense of ownership, shared purpose and achievement; and 
  • Building relationships and trust.  

To understand how your co-design process is being experienced, you could ask questions of your participants such as:  

  • Why did you get involved in this co-design project?  
  • Which activities did you enjoy and not enjoy?  
  • What were your relationships like with the facilitators and other stakeholders?  
  • Did participation have any impact on you?  


4. Gather insights into how to achieve your intended impact

Understanding how and why change occurs as a result of your organisation’s work matters as much as understanding whether there was any change at all. Even from these short-term projects, co-design generated valuable insights into what participants felt were the best outcomes for them, and how they might be achieved.

To draw out these insights, try to answer questions like:  

  • What do you know about the problem? What do your co-design participants say about what would help? Through these Building Connections Fund projects, co-design participants identified factors to make community spaces more engaging and attractive to young people, and more conducive to reducing loneliness. These primarily related to the use of technology and specific design features.  
  • What are the “active ingredients” of your work? What are the key experiences that people need for your work to be successful? For example, people may need to trust staff or feel confident enough to engage with activities. What have you learned about key design features for your work, for example duration, intensity, targeted or open activities? What barriers do participants identify, for example lack of transport or needing more flexibility to balance other commitments 
  • What have you learned about what success looks like? Is this different for different types of projects and participants? For some participants, success could be improving attainment at school while for others, simply engaging with an activity could be a significant outcome 

Ultimately, co-design can and should take different shapes and forms to respond to different people with differing needs. The crucial point is to set up your co-design with clear objectives in mind, and to embed opportunities throughout the process to reflect on those objectives and assess if you’re meeting them.

To help with this, I’ve worked with colleagues on a toolkit for designing, implementing and evaluating co-design. I’d love to know what you think and hear about your experiences with co-design. You can reach me at or on Twitter @MichelleLKMan. 

As we move into 2020, we’re now evaluating the impact of the Building Connections Fund as a whole, and we’ll be making recommendations for how charities can best tackle loneliness. Sign up to our newsletter to stay up to date with all our latest research. 


Further reading