Co-designing a product through COVID

There’s much to be said about the power of ‘co-design’. When done well, co-design can mean that a product is fully informed by its stakeholders: by those who have a vested interest in its success. It can also result in that product's resilience through the tests of time. The co-design of Skillet began back in 2019, over a year before we launched publicly. We started informally. Our conversations began by sense-checking what we wanted to achieve: to shift greater attention to the voices, choices and visibility of people with disabilities, senior citizens and the businesses who work in Disability Support and Aged Care sectors.


We were three months into our co-design process when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in New Zealand. Like many Kiwis, our work quickly became more virtual, structured and streamlined to overcome barriers imposed by the virus and our inability to meet during the height of transmission fears. As a digital product designed to reach all corners of Aotearoa, a key part of this process was collecting raw feedback on our prototypes. Lived experience and the insights of change-makers in the Disability Support, Aged Care and Small Business sectors led the way.



The pivot to a virtual co-design process turned out to be an unexpected boon. Prior to February 2020, we’d centred our feedback sessions on face-to-face meetings. Once New Zealand’s social distancing measures were introduced in March, we faced the necessary reality that most of Skillet’s future audiences would arrive at and experience the platform with no prior experience of it. The challenge of overloaded WiFi routers and static workspaces quickly paled against the gift of detailed, direct and undistracted feedback from co-design participants who near-universally saw Skillet’s potential to solve much of the disconnection and isolation that resulted from social distancing.

It’s April 2021 and we’re early days into a trans-Tasman bubble with Australia. Life looks very different to the reality we faced a year ago. Skillet is now into the third iteration of co-design with its stakeholders. So what’s changed between then and now?

For one thing, many of the entrenched problems facing Aotearoa’s healthcare and community-based services sectors have been placed under a glaring spotlight. The increased attention has resulted in greater appetite for change through smart and inclusive digital solutions like Skillet. Combine this with a renewed need be seen, heard and engaged, following rounds of social distancing, and we’ve seen a surge in people who want to contribute to Skillet’s co-design.


We’ve also been presented with great questions on what consultation, co-design and product testing should look like in a COVID-weary New Zealand, particularly among at-risk peoples. We can speak best from our own experiences. We’re big believers that true co-design comes from a place of honesty and open-mindedness. Accountability to the people you’re consulting must also be factored in. Being responsive to external change – like when a snap lockdown is announced – and internal change – like when your energy levels plummet and you need to catch your breath – is also key. Patience helps. Acknowledging that the process may take longer than you expect, but that delays don’t necessarily lead to perfection.

We’ve ultimately found that there is no singular prescription for what the co-design method should look like. Each design process is unique to its context and if you’re focusing on the needs and nuance of people as we are, it can also be deeply personal. Skillet Board Member and CEO of Moments with Love, Rachel Peterson, phrases it best. ‘We believe you have to get inside a situation to be able to assist in the solve. Some of the most amazing conversations we have as a team are open meetings of the minds: good energy, good kai, and good conversations with people who use support staff, for example. We hear the stories of staff working in the industry each and every day, and we use these insights to direct our build of not just a platform, but a company. A community that is mutually set up from conception to benefit them all.


It’s only by including stakeholders from the top down and truly deep diving into the issues, with respect for all parties involved, that we can do something that’s never been done before. We have to do it in a way that’s never been done before. And this is only possible by taking a people-centric approach to change.’


21 April 2021