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Empowering Older Adults through Co-Design

Updated: Jan 21

Human-centred design is a problem-solving approach that, as the name suggests, is focused on people’s needs, preferences, and opinions. As the world changes, human-centred design is used to address challenges and shape solutions such as digital transformation, diversity, and inclusion.

Co-design, also known as collaborative design, is a human-centred design approach that involves end-users, stakeholders and designers working together to create, innovate or improve products, services, systems or experiences. Co-design emphasises inclusivity and active involvement of all relevant parties in the design process and, according to the Victorian Government, is ideal for building confidence and ownership within a stakeholder group.

However, the Victorian Government also acknowledge that getting the right people together, for the right amount of time, and in the right conditions to make adequate decisions, can be a significant difficulty of the co-design method.

Empowered women

EMPOWER Framework

The Shaping Connections team has co-created a new EMPOWER framework for co-design with their research partners. It addresses these difficulties and includes people experiencing vulnerability in ways that empower them.

Through their research with the U3A Network Victoria and the City of Whittlesea, Shaping Connections Researchers Associate Professor Bernardo Figueiredo, Doctor Torgeir Aleti, Professor Diane Martin, Professor Mike Reid, Doctor Jacob Sheahan and Professor Larissa Hjorth, have identified seven guidelines that can be applied to co-designed workshops to empower groups experiencing vulnerability such as older adults.

EMPOWER Framework Guidelines

Thanks to the EMPOWER Framework, the following seven guidelines can now be used by practitioners when conducting co-design workshops:

Extend participation of beneficiaries

Extending participation provides empowerment by placing the focus on a participants’ ability, right and authority to steer the project in directions that are important to them.

Example: The Shaping Connections Senior Connectedness project, extended the role of U3A management through co-authoring the subsequent project grant application on Reducing Perceived Risk.


Multiplying and diversifying touchpoints provides opportunities and context for differences to emerge and helps participants feel represented. This allows practitioners to engage in scaffolded learning, helping them trust in and share power with participants.

Example: The Shaping Connections team co-designed the ‘Strategies for improving ICT Knowledge Interactive Tool’ with U3A’s ICT Tutors. They learnt from observing and participating in the classes, which provided a better understanding of everyday problems and solutions seniors face. This led to the team working with several CALD communities, which had a multiplying effect, resulting in two of the six personas in the Tool having CALD backgrounds.


Allowing participants to have a voice creates opportunities for them to be heard, make their voices public and see their participation results.

Example: The team prioritised and fast-tracked the production of vignettes showcasing interviews with research participants so that the participants could see their contribution as quickly as possible. The completion of risk categories was finalised after this, as the focus was on publishing the vignettes first.


Participants are provided with a range of tasks to feel included, become co-creators, and transform into collaborators with expertise.

Example: In a staged co-design approach, research participants were tasked with coming up with typical statements, examples and solutions to problems, including names of people. This information was included in the ‘Strategies for improving ICT Knowledge Interactive Tool’. Additionally, the copy editing of the Strategies to Improve Digital Technology Confidence Booklet was outsourced to U3A members.


By broadening the scope of planned and emerging activities and considering stakeholders' values, long-term relationships are fostered and value reinforced, empowering and strengthening the ecosystem.

Example: At the conclusion of the project on Reducing Perceived Risk and in the production of the final report on Co-Designing ICT Strategies with Older Adults, the team widened the dissemination of the project by holding additional workshops with stakeholders outside of their ecosystem but within their partners’ ecosystem. It is important to always leave the door open and ask stakeholders if there is anyone they would like to share the outcomes of the project with, which leads to stronger partnerships.


Enabling stakeholders to better engage with activities that help them become better co-creators, improves their ability to contribute meaningfully.

Example: Adequate resources need to be made available to support participants and ensure they can participate meaningfully. Shaping Connections researchers enlisted a larger team when undertaking a workshop with CALD communities. This allowed for smaller group work and more individual support, including the interviewing of participants.


Planning and conducting research designs that include moments of reflection opens up opportunities for direction change. This creates opportunities to understand, reflect and respond and increases abilities, rights and authority to be embedded in the process.

Example: The team actively invited participants to reflect on the activity they participated in both during and after the activity. They also reflected on each activity in regular meetings with U3A management. It is important to reflect together with beneficiaries as new thoughts, concerns and ideas are often processed in the reflection stage.

Development of the EMPOWER Framework

The Shaping Connections team worked with U3A Network Victoria and U3A members over five years to develop the EMPOWER Framework.

They interviewed 22 people, collected over 700 surveys, and joined 60 participants in co-design activities over six days of workshops spread across three months.

Find out more about co-design workshop outcomes here, and please contact the team if you would like assistance or to find out more about the new EMPOWER Framework.

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