Why consulting young people about their lived experiences isn’t enough - Effervescent

Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Whether you work with children and young people to bring their voice and influence to power; or you’re a brand that serves Gen Z’s needs; engaging with the lived experience of your audience or customers can unlock deep insight, powering your services, products and marketing so they have greater reach, and stronger engagement.  

Accessing the deep insight of someone’s lived experience isn’t easy.  It takes effort and integrity; and you can’t do it quickly.  

We’ve been working in this field for about twenty years now – usually working with children and young people whose voices have been routinely shut down and disregarded – and I want to tell you something:  

Understanding someone’s lived experience doesn’t come from asking them what they think.  

Someone’s opinion, even if they have had direct experience of something, is not the same as their lived experience 

Even if you have excellent intentions, and genuinely want to know how to shape services more effectively; or to make communications campaigns more resonant and meaningful for audiences; asking people what they think will get you almost nowhere, and possibly somewhere even less helpful than where you started.   

Most people, any people, when asked what they think, will tell you what they think you want to hear; or will try to help you by saying something even if they don’t really have an answer; they might say something based on the kind of day they are having; or they might say something that they’ve heard someone else say.  They might be trying to signal (to you, or to someone else in the focus group) that they are clever, or that they care, or that they are trying to help, or that they have good intentions.  They might not want to tell you something, but feel they have to give some sort of reply; so they might say whatever they can think of.  If you only ask them that one time, they may need time to consider, and may not able to give you an immediate response; or they might be worried or tired or hungry, and struggle to focus on what you’re asking.  

For children and young people, if they are being consulted by someone who has the perceived power to make decisions about them, or take away access to something they treasure, this effect is amplified – and coloured by the ramifications of giving the ‘wrong’ answer.  

Malcom Gladwell gives a brilliant talk about this. In particular he notes the ‘perils of introspection problem’: that the very act of directly asking someone what they think changes what they think – and often causes them to gravitate towards something they don’t actually believe to be true. If you’re aware of the phenomenon of anchoring and cognitive bias, you’ll know that the physical space and the service asking the questions will create the first anchor; and in a group situation the first person to answer a question will create a subsequent anchor around which that group will then gravitate.  

Expertise is a slippery thing; and we know that people have multiple intelligences and many ways of knowing, for example somatic markers: “gut feelings” and “heart intelligence”.  If you ask people to use language to describe something they have lived through, you’ve shut down many of their potential forms of communication and knowledge, in favour of words.   

For many people this is not their best way to communicate; children, teenagers and young adults may be especially disadvantaged.   

So if consulting young people about their opinions won’t help, what will?   

All our experience tells us that it’s deep insight, gathered through the wisdom of crowds, using creative coproduction methods. 

Ten-step guide to creative co-production

Deep Insight

Insight strategist Sam Knowles defines insight as, ‘profound and deep understanding of a person, a thing, a situation, or an issue that we can use to help us advance.’ Deep insight is the DNA that powers a useful idea.

“An unrecognised fundamental human truth; a new way of viewing the world that causes us to re-examine existing conventions and challenge the status quo; a penetrating observation about human behaviour that results in seeing [people] from a fresh perspective; [or] a discovery about the underlying motivations that drive people’s actions.” Dalton, 2016

Deep insight isn’t an opinion, and it’s not an empirical fact either.  You know when you’ve found deep insight, because it makes the hair on the arms of everyone in the room stand on end.  It’s the moment when, in a group of people, everyone suddenly sees something about themselves and what they’ve experienced with crystal clarity.  With that comes the experience of being seen – being acknowledged.  

Profoundly grounding, it’s a tiny moment of self-actualisation; the bit at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  It’s like rocket fuel for service design, product design and communication design because it speaks to a fundamental truth that had probably been ignored before. 

So, you’re going to need deep insight – a strategic vision for the thing that the young people know needs to be solved, or where some movement needs to happen. Without that, you’re tinkering at the edges, consulting about what would make your strategic vision more palatable, or pretty, or cost-effective.  

 If you’re looking for deep insight, you’re going to need a wise crowd with lived experience of the product, service, or issue you’re working on.   

Wise Crowds

wise crowd is a small but representative sample of the entire population with the lived experiences you’re working with.   

If you want to find out about young people’s experiences of being in care and what they want from foster parents, you’ll need to assemble a crowd of people of different ages, genders, experiences of entering care, lengths of time in care, positive and negative experiences, and young people who have left care, and are still in care.   

If you want to get deep insight about young people’s experiences of loneliness and how young people can support each other, you need to gather a bunch of young people with lived experiences of loneliness owing to multiple external and internal factors, different ages, different genders, different abilities, different ethnicities or religions or worldviews.  That way, you will find out what the core, deep truth is of loneliness, and what it means for young people 

And the exciting thing is, even if you believe you already know a lot about this stuff, you’re going to find out something new, something meaningful, perhaps even profound: 

 “I was excited by what I might hear from this group, but had no idea what to expect. Over the next few hours, they talked me through the insights they’d drawn from their own experiences of loneliness, and the creative process that had helped them turn these insights into a simple but powerful campaign concept. I learned as much that afternoon about youth loneliness, and about the often overlooked wisdom of young people, as I had done in the previous three years.” Jim Cook, Head of Coop Foundation, 2019 

Having convened your wise crowd, and having committed to mining for deep insight rather than consulting with the crowd; the next challenge is – well, how?  

 The answer is creative coproduction, especially if your crowd is mainly comprised of children, teenagers or young adults.  

Co-production is the participatory process by which a group of people work collaboratively to design services, products, user experiences or communications. It’s currently most prevalently used in the social care, health, and academic research sectors, but is becoming increasingly important for non-profit and commercial organisations.  

It’s a very specific way of working on goals which are shared between groups of people who all have a stake in powerful outcomes; an ‘innovation that overturns the conventional passive relationship between the ‘users’ of services and those who serve them.’ (Slay and Stephens, 2010) 

Co-production can be used with people of all ages; at Effervescent we specialise in creative co-production with children and young people aged 7-25.  

Why creative co-production?   

“There’s a bit of a communication gap between children and adults. Depending on age and stage of development, children simply don’t have the language skills of adults. They may feel something, but in many cases, they either can’t express it to an adult or don’t have a trusted adult to express it to.”  (Pietrangelo, 2019)  

Children’s and teenagers’ domains of knowledge are every bit as sophisticated as adults’, but they are different, and not always accessed most successfully through words – written or spoken. Play, and creative practices, are useful, non-linear ways to access a group’s ‘unknown knowns’ – the deep insight that resides within the group, but that no one person would be able, at the beginning of a co-production process, to articulate.  The very process of creative co-production gradually unearths truths which the group gradually record, recognise, and hone into useful deep insight in response to the brief.    

What’s more, rather than someone in charge recording the raw material and then removing it from the group to be fitted to their own purposes; co-production supports the wise crowd to work, over time, to turn that deep insight into a powerful service, campaign, or product, and then to use their knowledge and immersion in the communities it is to serve, to broker it: lending it additional reach, engagement, and authenticity. 

We’ve created a tenstep guide that you can follow to uncover what people with specific experiences know about your service, product, or brand without consulting… just fill out the form to download it for free. 

You can succeed at this.  Iyou’re excited but nervous, and it’s hard to know how to start, send us an email and we will schedule a free 30 minute consultation.  As a charity, we exist to help make co-production with children and young people achievable for ethical organisations of all types.  Sometimes just a friendly ear to help you work through it, is all you need.   

If you’re looking for more than that, we can offer: 

  • A one/two day training event in co-production for you and your team. 
  • Mentoring and programme consultancy to support you through your own creative co-production project.  
  • A creative co-production project, where we will work through the entire project, from brief-shaping to launch, with your team and with young people. 

 Interested?  Get in touch.