Guide for Embedded Co-design

What is embedded co-design?

Embedded co-design describes an approach in which a co-design process is led by the community members who will be directly impacted by the design. Often this requires several advance planning sessions, where relationships and trust are built between designers and the community leaders and members who will take on the role of session facilitators. During these initial planning sessions, suggested facilitation approaches may be discussed, and co-design activities are collaboratively tailored to the community’s particular context, interests and needs. By encouraging leadership to emerge from the community in this way, the process results in a more useable, effective and sustainable design.

See also Co-Designing Inclusive Cities - Our Outreach Process and Inclusive Design Guide - Practice Co-Design

What is the purpose of this document?

This document provides guidance on development of shared goals and understandings between the IDRC and project partners, guidance to partner facilitators, and techniques and steps to facilitate a co-design session.

1.0    Planning Meetings

This section describes the steps that IDRC and partner organizations will follow prior to running co-design events at the partner site:

  1. Planning meetings with partner organisation representatives and facilitators will be conducted (either in person or remotely via video conferencing, phone calls, email/chat conversations - depending on what is available to and preferable to the partner organisation).
  2. The number and duration of the planning meetings will be determined based on the partner organisation members’ availability and preferences. Based on past experiences, 2-3 planning meetings are sufficient to bring the facilitators up to speed and plan out the activities for the embedded co-design session.
  3. During these planning meetings the IDRC team, partner organisation representatives and facilitators will collaboratively develop:
    1. a mutual understanding of goals and desired outcomes for the sessions,
    2. a collection of activities to choose from that can help achieve those goals (based on IDRC-suggested co-design activities)
  4. During these planning meetings the IDRC team, partner organisation representatives and facilitators will review and discuss:
    1. The Facilitation Guide
    2. Policies and ethics related to the research process
    3. Accessibility and inclusivity for the intended community (a context-specific access guide for participants may be collaboratively developed where appropriate)
    4. Any additional materials required for conducting the co-design sessions
    5. Methods for recruiting participants
  5. Once the duration of the session(s), and location and structure of the activities have been collaboratively developed through the planning meetings, further details will be added to the Facilitation Guide that will include:
    1. an agenda for the session,
    2. steps to be taken for each activity,
    3. suggested duration of each activity,
    4. required material for each activity.
    5. additional tips and suggestions on how to lead the session.

2.0    Policies and Ethics Review

  1. In the planning sessions, all the material related to the core principles of ethical conduct (consent, fairness & equity, privacy and confidentiality) will be reviewed with the partner organisation representatives and facilitators (See TCPS2 Summary)
  2. At this phase, the contributor license agreement (CLA), group attribution, and any other forms used in the session will be discussed and reviewed with the facilitators. They will have an opportunity to ask questions and clarify any doubts or concerns.
  3. Any policies followed by the individual partner organisations will be maintained as required and any potential impact of these policies on the co-design process will be addressed in planning meetings. These may include allowable use of spaces, room capacity, type of food/snacks served, policies regarding use of personal digital devices, service animals, etc. and will be clearly communicated to participants beforehand to avoid conflicts during the session.
  4. The IDRC works in an open environment in which research and design artifacts are often shared publicly - this will be discussed and made clear to partner organisations during planning meetings and will be communicated to co-design participants and covered by the CLA and group attribution agreements.

3.0    Materials

The IDRC team will provide the partner organisation representatives and facilitators with the following materials:

4.0    Planning and Scheduling Guide

4.1   Planning Checklist

  • Recruit participants
  • Book venue / meeting room (check accessibility of space, washrooms, availability of public transit)
  • Create sign-up list or web registration form
  • Tentatively book ASL, caption services or other accessibility services as needed
  • Book catering or otherwise plan for refreshments, snacks and meals
    • Inquire about dietary restrictions for participants prior to booking
  • Confirm date of session with participants at least 3 weeks in advance
  • Ask participants to provide at least 48 hours notice of cancellation and have a back-up “waitlist”.
  • Send reminder notice 1 week prior to the event and again 1 day before the event
  • Send detailed agenda to the participants at least 3 days before the event, along with the Access Guide

4.2   Recruitment

  1. Partner organizations that agree to participate in a co-design process will be responsible for recruiting participants from their members and communities.
  2. They will be encouraged to use means that are most comfortable or preferable by their members to invite them to the co-design sessions, such as phone calls, emails, discussions during regular meetings, etc.
  3. Recruitment communication should include the following:
    1. Participation in the co-design session is voluntary and refusal or acceptance to participate will not impact your relationship with your cooperative
    2. You will be compensated for your participation at a rate comparable to your normal hourly wage
    3. This co-design session is undertaken in partnership with the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC)
    4. If you have any questions or complaints about the process at any time they should be directed to
    5. This co-design process has been approved by the OCAD University Research Ethics Board REB file #
  4. Example Recruitment Letter:

The following example letter was provided for the Platform Co-op Development Kit project.

Dear [Name]:

We are looking for co-op members who would be interested in participating in a collaborative work session to help design the tools that will be a part of the Platform Co-op Development Toolkit. This project aims to create digital tools that will support the success of prospective and current co-ops by advancing their participation in the digital cooperative economy. Through an iterative co-design process, we want to help gather, refine and build adaptable tools that will allow co-op members to establish and maintain a successful platform co-op.

The co-design session will likely be a one-day meeting (4-7 hours) during which time you would participate in collaborative activities with other co-op members. Please note the following:

  1. Participation in the co-design session is voluntary and refusal or acceptance to participate will not impact your relationship with your cooperative
  2. You will be compensated for your participation at a rate comparable to your normal hourly wage
  3. This co-design session is undertaken in partnership with the Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC)
  4. If you have any complaints about the process at any time they should be directed to _______________
  5. This co-design process has been approved by the OCAD University Research Ethics Board REB file# __________

If you are interested in participating please provide your contact details and we will register you for the session. If you require more information contact [email contact info].


[Your Name]

4.3   General notes about the schedule:

  1. Duration of the session(s) and number of participants will be determined by the availability of the partner organizations and their members, as well as on the project budget and desired monetary compensation to participants.
  2. The number of activities will be determined by the goals and duration of the session.
    1. Activities can be a mix of individual and group activities depending on the number of the participants, format and goals of the session
  3. Sessions can vary from one hour (e.g. something that fits within a regular meeting) to a full day-long activity (5-7 hours).
    1. Allow time for people to arrive late or leave early
    2. Allow for flexible breaks, so participants can take a break at any time
  4. For sessions that are 1- 3 hours
    1. Offering at least 1 break
    2. Providing beverages and light snacks throughout the session (if possible)
  5. For sessions that are longer than 3 hours or are multi-day sessions
    1. Offering at least 1 break every hour
    2. Offering proper meals depending on the time of the event (breakfast, lunch, dinner)
    3. Offering beverages and light snacks throughout the session (if possible)
  6. Remote sessions are recommended to be short and between 30 minutes to maximum of 2 hours.
    1. Long remote sessions are difficult as participants may lose interest in the discussion/activities and become distracted with other tasks.
    2. Allowing time for technical difficulties
    3. Considering collaboration between remote participants might be challenging and sometimes impossible if they have conflicting needs
    4. Considering different time zones when bringing several people together remotely

4.4   Accessibility

  • Facilitators are asked to communicate with the participants prior to the event to ask them about any accessibility services they need.
  • The IDRC team will help provide the facilitators with alternative format for the activities and any other material distributed in the session upon attendees request
  • Organisers are encouraged to offer sign interpretation, translation, captioning and audio description upon attendees request where possible
  • Organisers are encouraged to prepare an access guide including information and images of the venue, public transit access to the venue, details about the facilities, food, and activities and send it to participants at least 3 days ahead of the session (See sample access guide). This will give participants enough time to become familiar with the space and to know what to expect.
  • The most accessible path to the event should be included in the access guide or sent to the participants via email ahead of time.  
  • Accessibility of the space can be described at the beginning of the session
  • Any forms, such as CLAs, that require careful attention of the participants should be sent out to the participants ahead of time to allow them enough time for careful reading.

5.0    Facilitation Guide

This guide provides a starting point for co-design facilitators. Further details will be developed based on the specific activities agreed upon during planning sessions with the partner organisations (as described in 1.0 Planning Meetings).

5.1   Preparation

  • The room should be set up to best facilitate the activities and provide enough space for participants to move freely
    • For small group work, workstations can be created as needed by grouping tables and/or chairs,
    • Instructional materials can be posted in the room in large print for easy access,
    • Any creative materials should be laid out to be most accessible to all participants,
    • Space between workstations should be wide enough and without obstructions (such as power cords) as to allow free movement of all participants (including those in wheelchairs or those with service animals)
  • If there are remote participants in the session:
    • Send out the link to the video conferencing room(s) to participants ahead of time
    • Confirm their time zones and time of the session
    • Try to do a test run with them before the session
    • Let remote participants know if they need any materials (e.g. pens and paper) in order to participate in an activity
    • Make sure both remote and in-person participants know how to use their microphones to avoid any disturbance

5.2   Participant Welfare

Facilitators will be reminded to be mindful of different needs and preferences in diverse groups and try to make sure everyone feels comfortable and safe to contribute to discussions and participate in the activities, for example:

  • Allowing people to step out of the session at any time
  • Allowing participants to change groups and work with people they prefer
  • Allowing people to use their own devices, communication systems and communication methods as needed

5.3   Agenda

  1. Facilitators begin the event by a brief introduction of the project, goals of the session and overall agenda for the session ( 5-10 minutes). At this time, housekeeping notes will be shared (location of food, bathroom, etc.) as well as signing of CLAs and/or consent forms.  
  2. The sessions usually begin with a warm up activity (10-15 minutes). In shorter meetings the warm-up activity is replaced by a round of introductions.
  3. After the warm-up/introduction, the facilitators will introduce the activities in order. Detailed activities TBD as collaboratively developed in planning meetings.
  4. Ensure that participants have enough time to complete the activities (often in small groups) and if needed share ideas in the larger group.
    • Keep in mind that participants can take different times to complete an activity–facilitators should be mindful of the pace of each individual and ensure they are neither rushed nor bored.
    • The time for each activity can vary between 15 minutes to 1 hour. After an hour, it is encouraged to move on to a new activity or add new parameters to the current activity in order to keep up the energy levels and motivate participants to actively participate.  
  5. Depending on the duration of the session, participants should be given 10-20 minutes at the end to share learnings or experiences from the session with the larger group.

5.4   Collecting and Reporting Information

  1. The IDRC team will collect all the worksheets, sketches, and any other artefacts generated in the session, such as prototypes.
  • Where necessary artefacts will be mailed to the IDRC or provided in digital format (scanned documents, photos, digital design files, etc).
  1. The IDRC team will review and summarise the collected information.
  2. The IDRC team will remove any personal identifiers from the final results and prepare a report, to be shared with the partner organisation

5.5   Facilitator Tips and Suggestions

  1. Be observant of individual needs and group dynamics during the co-design session and re-calibrate your facilitation approach accordingly
  2. If you notice conflicting needs or unbalanced power dynamics in a group, join those groups to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak and to support individuals who may need more assistance.
  3. Encourage members to use the “Yes and” approach to build on each other’s ideas.
  4. Be flexible and ready to adjust the length/duration/flow of tasks to address different needs.
  5. Provide ongoing and step-by-step assistance to groups that may be lagging behind and need more guidance

6.0     Co-design Priming Document

This document will be sent out to participants a few days in advance of the co-design session to get them thinking ahead of time about the goals and outcomes of the co-design session(s).

The following example was provided for the Platform Co-op Development Kit:

Project Description:  The Platform Cooperative Development Kit project aims to create digital tools that will support the success of prospective and current co-ops by advancing their participation in the digital cooperative economy. Through an iterative co-design process, we want to help gather, refine and build adaptable tools that will allow co-op members to establish and maintain a successful platform co-op.

Questions to consider:

  1. Is there a digital tool that you use now in your work that you find particularly useful? What features do you like about it?
  2. Is there a digital tool that you use now that you would like to improve? What would you like to improve about it?
  3. The following diagram depicts some of the tools that might be created as part of this project – are there any tools shown here that you might find useful?
  4. Is there a regular task that you do in your work that you think would be easier or more efficient if supported by a new or an improved digital tool?

Note: a digital tool could be a website, an online calendar, a mail app, an online article, a digital template, spreadsheet, etc.

7.0    TCPS2 2014 Summary: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans

The following is a summary of the main points from TCPS2 2014: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans. For the full document please see

7.1   Core Principles:

  • Respect for Persons
    • Autonomy includes the ability to deliberate about a decision and to act based on that deliberation. Respecting autonomy means giving due deference to a person’s judgment and ensuring that the person is free to choose without interference. An important mechanism for respecting participants’ autonomy in research is the requirement to seek their free, informed and ongoing consent (see section on Consent below)
  • Concern for Welfare
    • Researchers must aim to protect the welfare of participants, and, in some circumstances, to promote that welfare in view of any foreseeable risks associated with the research. They are to provide participants with enough information to be able to adequately assess risks and potential benefits associated with their participation in the research.
  • Justice
    • Treating people fairly and equitably does not always mean treating people in the same way. Differences in treatment or distribution are justified when failures to take differences into account may result in the creation or reinforcement of inequities. One important difference that must be considered for fairness and equity is vulnerability. Vulnerability is often caused by limited decision-making capacity, or limited access to social goods, such as rights, opportunities and power.

7.2   Consent

Consent Shall Be Given Voluntarily (TCPS2 Article 3.1)

(a) Consent shall be given voluntarily.

(b) Consent can be withdrawn at any time.

(c) If a participant withdraws consent, the participant can also request the withdrawal of their data or human biological materials*

*Note: in the case of co-design, individual contributions to the design cannot be discerned or removed because it is considered to be part of a collective work. Participants can leave a co-design session at any time, however, their contributions cannot be erased from the group work as they are considered to be part of a collective work and not individual contribution.

Consent Shall Be Informed (TCPS2 Article 3.2)

Researchers shall provide to prospective participants, or authorized third parties, full disclosure of all information necessary for making an informed decision to participate in a research project

Consent Shall Be an Ongoing Process (TCPS2 Article 3.3)

Consent shall be maintained throughout the research project. Researchers have an ongoing duty to provide participants with all information relevant to their ongoing consent to participate in the research.

Consent Shall Precede Collection of, or Access to, Research Data (TCPS2 3.5)

Research shall begin only after the participants, or their authorized third parties, have provided their consent.

Consent Shall be Documented (TCPS2 Article 3.12)

Evidence of consent shall be contained either in a signed consent form or in documentation by the researcher of another appropriate means of consent.

7.3   Fairness & Equity

TCPS2 Article 4.1

Taking into account the scope and objectives of their research, researchers should be inclusive in selecting participants. Researchers shall not exclude individuals from the opportunity to participate in research on the basis of attributes such as culture, language, religion, race, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, linguistic proficiency, gender or age, unless there is a valid reason for the exclusion.

TCPS2 Article 4.7

Individuals or groups whose circumstances may make them vulnerable in the context of research should not be inappropriately included or automatically excluded from participation in research on the basis of their circumstances

Equitable Distribution of Research Benefits

Researchers should consider ways to ensure the equitable distribution of any benefits of participation in research.

7.4   Privacy and Confidentiality


An important aspect of privacy is the right to control information about oneself. The concept of consent is related to the right to privacy. Privacy is respected if an individual has an opportunity to exercise control over personal information by consenting to, or withholding consent for, the collection, use and/or disclosure of information.


The ethical duty of confidentiality includes obligations to protect information from unauthorized access, use, disclosure, modification, loss or theft. Fulfilling the ethical duty of confidentiality is essential to the trust relationship between researcher and participant, and to the integrity of the research project.

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research may pose special ethical issues around gaining access, building rapport, using data and publishing results. Researchers and REBs should consider issues of consent, confidentiality and privacy, and relationships between researchers and participants in the design, review and conduct of the research. Some of these may be identified in the design phase. Others will arise during the research itself, which will require the exercise of discretion, sound judgment and flexibility commensurate with the level of risk and potential benefit arising from the research, and considering the welfare of the participants, individually or collectively.