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When the COVID-19 pandemic caused everything to shut down, Knowledge SUCCESS saw this as an opportunity to champion empathetic workshop design and be an early adopter of virtual co-creation.

Let’s rewind to March 2020. Our U.S.-based team was one day from boarding a flight to Nairobi, Kenya to conduct co-creation workshops with family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) professionals to identify barriers limiting the flow of knowledge between programs, firenena, and regions—and opportunities to transform the way our FP/RH community approaches knowledge management—when the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic caused everything to shut down. After months of designing and planning, we found ourselves in a place with these workshops that we could not have anticipated. Were we going to postpone and wait for things to open up? Or were we going to attempt to conduct the four co-creation workshops virtually? We decided on the latter, which lead us on a journey of learning, constant iteration, and ultimately success.

While it was easy to mourn the loss ofwhat could have beenwith the highly anticipated in-person workshops, Knowledge SUCCESS saw this as an opportunity to champion empathetic workshop design and be an early adopter of virtual co-creation. Empathetic workshop design was essential—we knew that in order to conduct our in-person workshop in a virtual space, we needed to make some significant modifications to meet the realities and needs of our participants. A few main things came into play:

  1. Internet connectivity.
  2. Scheduling.
  3. Virtual design thinking tools.
  4. Facilitation.

Internet Connectivity

Internet connectivity was a real challenge. Many of our workshop participants in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the United States, like myself and my co-facilitators, were finding themselves in brand-new work environments, mostly from home, which meant that internet connectivity was not always available; when it was, there was no guarantee of its quality. Because we were determined not to let readily available internet be a criterion for participation, thus affecting our participant pool, Knowledge SUCCESS provided internet credit to participants so that they could join each synchronous co-creation session. Additionally, we leveraged design thinking tools that could be used synchronously and asynchronously, as well as WhatsApp for quick and easy communication.

Four globe icons with a pin marker representation the locations of the co-creation workshops
Knowledge SUCCESS conducted four regional co-creation workshops between April and June 2020, with 69 FP/RH professionals representing 21 firenena.

Scheduling

Scheduling was another important consideration. Unlike in-person workshops, we could not expect participants to join us for full days online; with participants located in different countries, we also had time differences to consider. To accommodate everyone’s needs, we worked with participants to identify the most convenient times for them and scheduled accordingly. It’s important to note that the best times for participants were often not ideal times for facilitators based in the U.S. (think very early mornings and super late nights), but designing to best accommodate participants was our priority, so agility on the part of facilitators and support personnel was essential.

Sample Participant Agenda
Download and adapt our sample participant agenda for your own workshops!

Virtual Design Thinking Tools

While now, over a year and a half into the pandemic, virtual tools for design thinking and workshops are more common, back in March 2020 the climate was very different. Selecting the right tools—those that would be most comfortable for our participants—was critical. Rather than guess, we asked them directly, ultimately selecting Zoom for our synchronous co-creation sessions and Google Slides for our design thinking work. Unlike platforms such as Mural, Miro, SY Jamboard, Google Slides was not intended for design thinking, but Knowledge SUCCESS felt that it was much more important to build a tool folks were comfortable with, rather than introduce something new that would require training and potentially be a barrier for engagement. Using Google Slides, even with its limitations, allowed for an easily accessible way to co-create virtually.

A google slide with multiple sticky notes

Sample Rose, Bud, Thorn affinity cluster created using Google Slides.
Click here to view the web accessible version (page 22 of the PDF).

Facilitation

Finally, we needed to figure out our facilitation approach. We all know that facilitation can make or break a workshop, and I would argue this is even truer in the virtual space. Given that this workshop would feature so many firsts for participants, we opted for a high-touch, high-energy facilitation style. This ensured that everyone felt supported every step of the way and that the workshop would not only generate great ideas for Knowledge SUCCESS but also empower a cadre of public health professionals with solid practice in design thinking and virtual workshop participation, both crucial and transferable skills.

Great attention to these four key components of empathetic workshop design resulted in four fruitful virtual co-creation workshops in Anglophone Africa, Francophone Africa, Asia, and the United States, during which participantsreimagined the ways FP/RH professionals in their region access and use evidence and best practices to optimize FP/RH programs.This reimagining led to three new knowledge innovations for the FP/RH community:

  • FP insight, a website to discover and organize your favorite FP/RH resources
  • Ny Pitch, a series of regional competitions that places stakeholders in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia at the center of designing and implementing knowledge management solutions
  • Faribolana fianarana, a series of highly interactive learning exchange forums to guide program managers and technical advisors through discussions on what works and what doesn’t in FP/RH programs

In addition, the workshops yielded a host of other useful resources, including the Ao anatin'ny tantara FP podcast.

So would we do virtual co-creation again? Most definitely!

Want to know more about virtual co-creation? Check out Knowledge SUCCESSrecommended strategies and solutions.

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Danielle Piccinini Black

Design Innovation Lead, Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs

Danielle Piccinini Black is the Design Innovation Lead at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, Academic Lead for Innovation and Human-Centered Design at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School—Executive Education, and Design Thinking Adjunct Faculty at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. She leads the development and implementation of design thinking research, workshops, and co-creation internationally to address emerging public health and business needs, and uses that experience to enhance her design thinking courses. Danielle holds an MPH from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and an MBA from the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. She also served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger and South Africa. mailaka: danielle.piccinini@jhu.edu.

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