At the end of June 2015 five members of the Leapfrog team attended the AHRC Connected Communities Soundings and Findings conference at the Norwich campus of the University of East Anglia to deliver two presentations on the work done by Leapfrog to date. The focus of the conference directed squarely on the research outcomes across the Connected Communities programme, and provided us with a welcome opportunity to take stock of our findings to date with Leapfrog. The work of other research presented at the conference threw into relief the distinctive approach to tools Leapfrog is taking as both a means and an outcome of research.

A fundamental question we are asking within Leapfrog is what collaborative tools are and what they can do. Many research projects seek to produce tools and toolkits as outcomes, but the same label is applied to many different things. The traditional toolkit a homeowner keeps in the garage is packed with things that demonstrably enabled or transform tasks, yet toolkits for participatory and collaborative activities are often simply a list of instructions or advice. If tasked with , you really do need to have a screwdriver before you can do the task; there is no other way to drive a screw. A set of instructions for the same task may improve the results of the task (i.e. persuading you to use a spirit level), but it would seem strange to talk about the instructions sheet as a tool.

Reflecting on the landscape of collaborative tools, we have identified a number of distinctive features of Leapfrog’s approach to tools:

Transforming interactions and experiences

We want Leapfrog tools to be more than informational in nature; we want them to do useful work that transforms collaborative interactions. Rather than simply providing a list of instructions, we want Leapfrog tools to alter how people collaborate and the role that facilitators play in these activities. Leapfrog tools created to date, such as the Visual Voice, change the relationship of the facilitator to the activity – the tool itself alters what it means to design and deliver a consultation activity.

Moving from the first to second order tools

Rather than build tools to solve specific problems, Leapfrog’s approach is to design ‘second order’ tools; creating tools that can be appropriated and modified to fit with a particular context. When designing tools our focus is as much who will select, specialise and apply the tool, as much as on the people who will eventually experience it. This places substantial demands on the information surrounding a tool, but results in tools that are less specialised and can have a far wider range of uses. As an example, our Visual Voice tool comes with a range of customisable templates, each chosen to trigger connections and possible uses to people who might want to put it to work.

Inspiring and enabling appropriation

We want our tools to inspire people to use them in ways we could never predict or support. To do this we want to create tools that invite use, but which also invite reflection on that use rather than determine it completely. We often illustrate how tools can be used with rich and complete examples, but we also try to make elements of tools discrete and flexible in themselves to invite alterations and modifications. When people alter and modify tools we seek to capture this and draw this knowledge back into a community of shared practice.

Research probe and dissemination

As a research project, tools and toolboxes provide a valuable means to disseminate and propagate our research. By packaging up insights and learning as useful tools we can aid the outcomes of the project to have utility and impact, but we can also draw people into a community of tool users. Each individual tool is not necessarily designed explicitly as a research probe, but for some users of our tools we expect the tools to function as probes, prompting experimentation and reflection. Well-​designed tools that invite appropriation and let people try new ways of doing things will spread the outcomes of this project far wider than conventional means dissemination.

Leapfrog uses Co-​design and Participatory Design approaches to develop tools grounded in naturalistic contexts through the projects we run with partners. Almost all tools created through Leapfrog will be shared in some form, but the most valuable, reusable and disruptive tools will also be shared through Leapfrog Toolboxes. These toolboxes will have a wider reach and hopefully travel far beyond the circle of partners and stakeholders we work closely with. We hope that through toolboxes our tools will find new audiences and applications far beyond the uses conceived of when they were first designed. We hope to find groups and individuals who will modify and remix our tools in so develop new forms of consultation and collaboration.