Breaking down barriers to participation in the Leeds 2023 festival of culture

Leeds 2023 Year of Culture

There isn’t a single definition of culture

Building the foundations for an inclusive and accessible festival of culture in Leeds

Back in 2015, the city of Leeds decided to bid for European Capital of Culture 2023. But after the UK’s vote to leave the EU, UK cities were banned from entering. With cross-party support, the backing of more than 20 local businesses and a public poll in the Yorkshire Evening Post, the city decided to go ahead with Leeds 2023 City of Culture anyway.

The part we played 

dxw led on the 8-week discovery for the digital part of the Leeds 2023 experience. Leeds 2023 aims to involve over 75% of Leeds’ 830,000 residents in its programme of activities. But the client team knew that, although there’s a lot of support for Leeds’ Year of Culture, some people don’t think it’s for them. So our job was to find out about the barriers to people taking part in Leeds 2023, and identify how to design services in ways to overcome them. 

To discover what the public, children and families, and people we don’t usually hear from think, we carried out both planned and spontaneous research. As well as asking our own questions at partner agencies’ research sessions, we led co-design sessions and carried out guerrilla interviews in Leeds city centre. 

What is culture and what makes a good experience?

When you start asking people about a ‘Festival of Culture’, it quickly becomes clear that there isn’t a single definition of culture. In fact, the term ‘culture’ can sometimes be off-putting for those who assume that it’s high brow and not for them.

When we asked socially active people (the kind that use social media a lot and are always out and about) about how they assess events and experiences, they said, “if it says it’s “family friendly” then that’s usually an indicator that it’s not for me”. Which shows that trying to appeal to everyone can mean you end up being appealing to no one.

Food and drink also play an important part in an experience. If you’ve ever been part of a family or group where dietary requirements are a consideration, this comment will resonate with you, “I’ll always look at what food options are available as I have one fussy eater and another who can’t eat gluten or dairy”.

Surprisingly, there wasn’t a huge amount of concern about Covid. But the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing and the cost of living crisis were very much on peoples’ minds.

Our insights

The insights we gathered focused on behaviours, needs and attitudes and were going to be critical to the success of the festival. What we learned complemented the demographically-focused research done by other agencies working on the project. And we realised that it wasn’t just helpful for the digital parts of the experience, it would be valuable more broadly across the entire festival too.

We had a digital design agency waiting in the wings to find out how to best design the attendee touch points. Delivering insights that the alpha designers could actually use was our goal, so what we’d learned needed to be packaged up into tools. This meant the main thing for us to do was identify the right tool set, and because we were restricted by time and budget, we had to be selective. 

The tools we developed

Because this project focused on strategy instead of building a product, one of our tasks was to help those who were doing the building to understand the kinds of things they should be focusing on. So we created tools to help them do this.

Using a blend of our own and existing research, we created 6 rich personas based on the archetypes identified during the research. These were sketch outlines of typical users to which we later added a persona story to bring them to life. They were designed to help colleagues focus on the user and their needs during the design and build process. 

'The Anxious Thinkers' persona document that dxw created for Leeds 2023 shows what people who are extra cautious about going to events are looking for, thinking and what holds them back from attending.

‘The Anxious Thinkers’, one of the 6 personas we created

The personas included the archetype, persona story, their thoughts, tools and toys, their drivers, hurdles, barriers and concerns.

We also developed 5 experience principles to help deliver a user experience in a way that not only helps reduce barriers, but also produces moments that leave a positive lasting impression:

The 5 Leeds 2023 experience principles are: 'within reach', 'great value', 'time well spent', 'a warm welcome' and 'I'm in!'. They are the 5 main things that the people putting the festival together must keep in mind to make sure it's accessible and a positive experience for as many people as possible.

The 5 Leeds 2023 experience principles

Each principle describes a set of steps on a Path to Participation which, if successfully followed, helps address peoples’ barriers, and move them towards engagement and beyond:

The Path to Participation is a set of steps that help address the barriers that could get in the way of people attending, and enjoying, the Leeds 2023 festival of culture..

Leeds 2023 Path to Participation

Because principles are not tied to a particular channel or journey, they’re applicable in a wide range of scenarios:

'A warm welcome' is the 4th of 5 experience principles for the Leeds 2023 festival of culture. It covers what people want to know about the physical experience of an event. For example, if they'll feel comfortable at it, if the venue's accessible and if there'll be restrictions on numbers to reduce crowding.

Experience Principle 4: A warm welcome

Each step comes with:

  • a target mindset
  • what people should be saying, thinking or feeling
  • what this means for each principle and its impact
  • examples of what solutions to people’s barriers might look like

The Path to Participation packaged up all 5 experience principles into what was seen as the most useful of the tools the team delivered.

We agreed these tools would be branded ‘Leeds 2023’ to encourage adoption by the teams using them.

The difference the tools have made

The work was really well received by our client, her team and the digital agency:

“The show and tell was great. I was really pleased. What your team is doing is exactly what I love, so it is really nice to see a great team bring it together like that, I feel amongst friends! Lots of positive feedback on this side afterwards too.”

“Really, really rich, especially really well articulated”.

It was clear that the client team could see how the tools we’d developed would be useful in a range of areas. For example, volunteer recruitment, marketing website content as well as encouraging broader engagement with the festival. 

Since we finished up

The client team created short videos of our 6 personas to help increase their take-up throughout the organisation. 

The first MVP of the digital service (or as the client liked to call it, the “Minimum Loveable Product”) is now live. 

Inspired by one of our personas – The Anxious Thinkers – the web team included a feature to show how busy a venue might be at a certain time. Not so much because this is a common or obvious feature, but because our work identified it as important and useful for the widest audience.

For signing up and booking tickets, the team decided not to ask for evidence of a stated disability.  This was informed by the experience principle ‘A Warm Welcome’, as the festival needs to be an inclusive, welcoming space for all, that trusts its audiences.