Photo of a user-centred consultation on the Golden Lane Estate in London. Six residents gather round a map of the estate and give their feedback about what could happen. One person is pointing and moving something on the map and the others are looking and listening.

What user-centred design can bring to public consultations

Some in the infrastructure, architecture and construction worlds don’t like or trust consultations. They can be seen as tick-box exercises that get in the way of a good design and build. But we think they’re great. Done right it’s an opportunity to learn from the community in a way that will reduce the risk of future failure. What’s more, doing consultations in the right way can build understanding and buy-in with the community.

Co-creative consultations build understanding and consensus

With big projects in the community strong feelings can arise on all sides. But these feelings often deepen and entrench because people don’t feel like they’ve been heard as things progress.

When we run consultations we make sure to get to the heart of the matter for each person who participates as quickly as possible. Once people have said their bit and we’ve made a record of that they’re suddenly much more open to hearing other perspectives.

We run group sessions so that participants get to hear the perspectives of others. And we are transparent about the objectives, constraints and limitations of the project. And give them a chance to play with how future plans could work for them within these constraints. Participating in decision making like this gives residents a feeling of excitement in taking part in changing things in a collaborative way. It’s the opposite of a tick box exercise.

The way the sessions are designed aims to facilitate difficult conversations. And then helps people find a space for compromise and convergence amid disagreement.

A human-centred consultation means we learn from what people say and do

Our consultations are also a qualitative research process to build knowledge. Inviting people to participate in the process is also a way of learning about what’s needed. It’s designed to find out what is most important to people without speaking to everyone. 

The consultation invites lots of different views, but works to find points of convergence. In the sessions we add more detail to the sessions as we learn more. In analysis we as researchers find the right level for that convergence. After a certain amount of time we reach a point where we can be confident our findings are detailed enough and strong enough to draw conclusions about what people need in relation to what’s being proposed.

Actions are more closely aligned with what the community know and need

At the end of this process we provide practical advice to designers and an evidence base for making better decisions.

We’ve done many consultations over the years, for instance for Cornwall County Council, for the City of Amsterdam and the Golden Lane Estate in London. And we pioneered a method of consultation called street labs.

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