Co-Designing with Students to Combat Addiction

Mad*Pow partnered with Behavioral Health Innovators (BHI), a national non-profit organization dedicated to finding solutions to the addiction crisis, to create a series of co-design workshops partnering with high school students in recovery from addiction. Mad*Pow worked closely with these students to understand and document the underlying causes of substance abuse, map their journeys through addiction and recovery, and facilitate the creation of several prototypes of interventions that could help other young adults like them.

Project Highlights:
• Conducted a literature review to identify best practices for preventing and treating addiction in young adults
• Pinpointed opportunities for an intervention targeting high-school addiction
• Closely involved the target audience, high school students, in the creation of their own solution through the use of use the co-design methodology

Co-design methodology

Co-Design is a process partnering designers with problem owners to facilitate the collaborative creation of solutions that best meet the problem owners’ needs. This process views designers as process facilitators rather than sole creators of solutions, and presents problem owners as subject matter experts. In a problem space like addiction involving stigma and complex systems,, the people suffering from the problem are the best equipped to solve it with the facilitation of designers. Mad*Pow designed a set of workshop activities to create a safe environment where young adults could feel comfortable sharing their experiences, stretching outside their comfort zones, and designing creative solutions for their own challenges.
Understanding addiction as a systemic disease
In our society, addiction is often seen as a personal failure, an undesirable character trait, or a condition affecting only certain stereotypes. These views are counterproductive when addressing addiction and only promote guilt and shame. Additionally, these views disregard the biological and physiological causes of the disease which are of paramount importance, particularly when addiction begins in adolescence. With this understanding, Mad*Pow curated a collection of evidence-based research that focused on identifying the root causes of addiction as well as the behaviors and environments that lead to it. We used this research during the workshops to help students identify what needs were missing in their lives that substances replaced. This perspective allowed students to focus on community level interventions with a broad cultural impact.

Rapid Prototyping: quickly generating ideas and building solutions
In the workshop we not only focused on understanding the problem space, but also created eight possible solutions together with students. These were produced through the process of rapid prototyping. Students used craft materials like Play-Doh, pipe cleaners, and markers to create prototypes based on the opportunities for intervention that they identified in this workshop. Students then had an opportunity to share their solutions with other participants in a quick high-energy product pitch. These pitches and tangible artifacts not only helped illustrate the story of these students’ journeys through addiction, but also direct BHI towards the selection of effective solutions. Additionally, they facilitate the external communication of the importance of BHI’s work.

"The Mad*Pow team approached this design challenge with equal parts “hearts and head.” They brought design thinking and best practices into the process with open hearts and a warm, welcoming presence. I am convinced that we would not have been able to get the results we did without the structured, but fun activities presented in a safe way for these very emotional topics. The students loved the process and so did we. Mad*Pow created a creative, free and empowering space for students in recovery to share their voice about addiction." Mary Beth Schoening, Co-founder, Behavioral Health Innovators.

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Behavioral Health Innovators
Co-Designing with Students to Combat Addiction


Jennifer Smerdel Experience Strategist
Olga Elizarova Senior Behavior Change Analyst   Contact Olga
Samantha Dempsey Senior Behavior Change & Experience Designer

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