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Experts versus users: The value of co-design

Watch Erin Hurley’s video to understand the difference between expert led (top down) and bottom up thinking
We live in a world where we rely on experts, experts who create things such as programmes, products, or services that they expect us to use as designed. In social marketing, we call this top-down thinking. When users take a different path, experts are not happy accepting this, and they can get upset. In contrast to a top-down thinking approach, social marketers work from the bottom up, starting with asking users what they want before designing something. We call this a customer-centric approach, and social marketers like to keep the people we serve, often customers, at the heart of everything we do. In social marketing, we work together with people to tackle complex social problems, and our aim is to help deliver a solution.
One method that we use is co-design. In order to co-design, we ask the people using the product or process, the users, to generate innovative design solutions that would motivate them. We want users to work together to produce design ideas that their group would value. We know the best people to ask about what they want are the users themselves. By rethinking the way we approach problems and by centering the most important audience, our users, at the heart of the design stage, we acknowledge that current or intended users are experts of their own experiences.
The constant strive for new and improved experiences is a popular topic around the world, whether it’s the latest mobile phone, a self-driving car, video game, or smart refrigerators, it is quite easy to find excited people who are willing to help design or develop new products, services, and programmes. Co-design empowers users, giving them the tools to express themselves and the freedom to design their idea of an attractive and engaging programme. Insights generated through co-design lead to different ideas than those developed by experts. We know we can increase the success of our programmes through greater user participation, engagement, and satisfaction, when users are placed at the centre of the design process.
In order to empower users to contribute meaningful ideas and drive programme innovation, it is crucial to understand how to successfully facilitate a co-design session. We will examine this in our next video.

The only experts that really matter are the people at the centre of the problem. To deliver lasting change we need to move away from top down, or expert led, approaches to bottom up.

As we heard in the video we live in a world where experts think they know what people need and want.

  • Experts provide advice to funding bodies.
  • Experts draw on years of training, their own experience and the experiences of those closest to them to design and deliver programs and services for people.
  • Experts commission agencies to gather answers to the questions they have.

We call this top down thinking.

Without living the day to day experiences of the people at the centre of the problem we can never know what is really needed.

Leading global commercial marketers know this. Their researchers follow households for weeks at a time to:

  • understand what products and services are meeting needs
  • to see what gaps exist and
  • to learn how a users’ experience can be improved.

Marketers are never satisfied because they know improvements can always be made to stay ahead of the competition. By gaining a deep understanding of people, marketers can identify new ideas that change the way we consume and behave.

While we don’t always have the funding to live with people at the heart of the problem we can use tools to centre our approach on the people that experts tell us need to change.

Re-thinking approaches to change

When tasked with a problem, marketers need to gain a deep understanding of the current system in order to learn how to effect change.

As a starting point marketers centre users at the heart of everything they do. Tools like co-design work with the people who are experts of their own world, challenging them to identify solutions to the problems faced.

If expert approaches were working we wouldn’t be faced with wicked problems like obesity, climate change and social inequalities. For too long we have let top down approaches dominate.

If we are truly critical, we have to agree the current approaches aren’t working. By turning to a bottom up approach we can learn from the people who are living the problem.

People experiencing the problems everyday are best placed to identify why change isn’t occurring and they can work with others to create lasting solutions that deliver change.

Your task

Tell us about the people you would invite, to co-design a program, to tackle the issue you care about? Post a comment to get feedback on your thinking.


Dietrich, T., Trischler, J., Schuster, L. and Rundle-Thiele, S.R. (2017) “Co-designing services with vulnerable consumers” Journal of Service Theory and Practice, 27(3), 663-688.

Dietrich, T., Rundle-Thiele, S.R., Schuster, L., & Connor, J. (2016). Co-designing social marketing programs. Journal of Social Marketing, 6(1), 41-61.

Durl, J., Trischler, J., & Dietrich, T. (2017). Co-designing with young consumers – reflections, challenges and benefits. Young Consumers, 18(4), 439-455.

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Social Change: How Can Marketing Help?

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