Researching and designing for vulnerable groups

A person using a tablet

We’re likely to do more design for vulnerable groups in future, so we’re keen to keep learning

Making sure the services we help to create work for everyone is really important to us at dxw.

Research and design will sometimes include working with vulnerable groups. These could be individuals who are vulnerable for any number of reasons – age, disability, an abusive relationship, a form of marginalisation, unequal power relationships in personal or professional situations and so on.

At the Service Design in Government conference, we attended sessions on researching with children and working with the victims of domestic violence.

It’s important to keep learning

We’re likely to do more design for vulnerable groups in future, so we’re keen to keep learning.  

Our education research, for example, has involved working with parents and teachers to ensure the services we’re developing meet everyone’s needs. Parents who have English as a second language interact differently with a service to parents whose first language is English. We need to account for these differences when we’re conducting interviews or visiting homes.

Using co-design and providing a safe space

Melanie and Jessica from Barnados spoke about their use of co-design. By making the young people they help part of the design team, they ensure they have a clear picture of their needs. It allows the design of life-changing services in a truly collaborative fashion.

We so often see young people overlooked and ignored when products and services are being designed in their name. They have a significant role to play in making sure resources are focussed in the right way and encouraging organisations to adopt a more collaborative approach.

We use co-design at dxw, for example with teachers and school staff when designing the Teaching Vacancies service, so we’re familiar with this approach. But we hadn’t used it with the specific aim of supporting and involving vulnerable groups in mind.

Barnardos explained that instead of using discussion guides, they design interactions – like taking the time to introduce themselves, providing reassurance and a safe space, making suggestions instead of setting rules, saying thank you for contributions and frequently checking in.  This encourages participation and makes people feel valued.

We also talked about the importance of all members of the team – user researchers and participants – being supported in sharing difficult past experiences or triggers with someone they feel safe talking to. That means projects can be assigned carefully and extra time can be planned in for self-care.

Getting the right result

Incorporating co-design and collaboration when you are designing services is genuinely empowering. In society, vulnerable groups tend to be ignored and they can be disadvantaged by the services that are supposed to help them. Making the space to surface, design for, and prioritise their needs means creating services that people can depend on and that will ultimately make their lives better.