For the Be Included project, the Leapfrog team have been exploring the use of the social media application WhatsApp as a forum for co-​design. The main driver for using WhatsApp is that it is one way of enabling a group of people who are geographically dispersed to participate in the project, a challenge that we often come up against. Typically when we co-​design we work in relatively short, yet focused and face-​to-​face bursts of activity, often as individual co-​design workshops. Attempting to stage similar collaborative activities and interactions over WhatsApp has brought about several interesting and unexpected challenges which, as we pass the mid-​point of the project, we are now reflecting on.

At the outset of the project we aimed to maintain an iterative format. Whereby at the start participants explore their current working practices and identify the design problem, then go through an ideation stage where they co-​develop ideas and prototype solutions, and finally through to testing these prototypes in real-​life scenarios so to fine-​tune and refine how they work. For this project, the Leapfrog team staggered these activities over weekly missions, which were posted on the WhatsApp group as were the responses from the participants. This required careful forward planning before the project began, and the creation of individual task information sheets to send out each week.

Having the project literally in the pockets of the participants, and the members of the Leapfrog team has changed the rhythm and tempo of the project from what we would normally expect. Participants may upload a thought, reaction, or idea at any point during the weekly missions. The asynchronous nature of WhatsApp has led to the dialogue being a little disjointed or sporadic at times, as conversations are naturally picked up by different participants at different times. This has not however diluted the quality of contributions. What the Leapfrog team have found is that where we could, in a workshop environment, pick up on key points and encourage participants to expand on ideas, we are doing this by posting questions to the group as and when we pick up the thread. There are some tricks in WhatsApp that we have used to our advantage. For example utilising the app’s hashtag function has been crucial in tracking responses to particular tasks. By requesting participants hashtag each post in accordance to the task (#task4 for example), we can track conversations about individual tasks. We have found that with the natural flow of dialogue we of course jump back and forth in time and from task to task and this has become more manageable with this function. Another of WhatsApp’s functions that we have grown to depend upon so to directly address individual participants in the group conversation is the @ icon followed by their name, which tags a participant in a post. These simple features have greatly helped with managing the co-​design process in, what is essentially, a continuous vertical stream of dialogue (both written and visual) between the participants and the Leapfrog team. And of course everyone loves an emoji 🙂

Being able to respond in real-​time or at a time that suits has allowed for highly flexible participation that fits in with the participants’ lives and does not require them to be geographically brought together and has been a real positive for the project. This has however also been challenging in respect to sustaining consistent engagement with each mission and we are learning we have a much more active role to play in keeping the ball rolling. It’s been a really interesting experience so far and we are really excited to see how the ideas are going to develop in the remainder of the project and what other insights might emerge with using the WhatsApp platform as the stage for co-​designing. Watch this space!