Co-design case study: digital heritage inspires the Pacific

By Nick Butler

17 January 2022

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A girl using on a giant touch screen at the launch. This co-design case study shows how the project delivered this end result.

This co-design case study shows how a collaborative government project is inspiring the people of the Pacific by providing a portal to their cultural treasures. It also shows how co-design is possible even under time pressure and in the middle of a pandemic.

For all the challenges, the co-design approach has proved rewarding.

“It’s been a privilege to work with the co‑design team,” says Programme Manager Tim Kong.

“STOP EVERYTHING: Digital Pasifik: an absolutely stunning central database of digital archives on the #Pacific. This is a *huge* resource!” Tuomas Tammisto @tutamAW


The project impact

Screenshot of a user contribution to Under a 1928 photo of Kadavu, Fiji the text reads 'The first time I saw this image I gasped. Not just because of the image, but the caption. This photo is taken in 1928, but I've seen the outline of this very island emerge from the pre-dawn light, on the midnight sailing from Suva.'By creating a site that lets those in and of the Pacific find inspiration in their cultural heritage, the project is building up their cultural identity, with all the wellbeing benefits this is known to produce.

Of the many learnings that came from working closely with users, one of the most powerful was the strength of people’s reactions.

“I remember how excited and surprised people were when they found these taonga that they didn’t even know existed,” says designer Nick Schuler.

You can see the same sort of response in the user contributions function on the site.

The project goals

The goal of the Pacific Virtual Museum (PVM) pilot project was to make visible and accessible the digitised cultural heritage of the Pacific.

Doing so would:

  • build Pacific institutions’ cultural heritage management capacity, including empowering Pacific countries to own and manage the digital collection
  • capture and share digital data on Pacific collections from around the world
  • deliver improved educational outcomes at all levels
  • support contemporary local Pacific art and culture industries through provision of an open access digital collection
  • increase international research collaboration on Pacific cultural heritage
  • provide a mechanism for private and public international support for Pacific art and culture
  • establish a platform that is scalable to include other forms of national heritage.

At the heart of the project was a website. Unlike most museums, the website does not hold or own any of the items it presents. It uses award-winning open-source software to collect images and information about each item and make them easier to find. Rather than a box, it is a bridge. It connects end users with the institutions holding the treasures, a trove currently numbering around 400,000 items.

“So cool! Now I can look at all our beautiful tao’a online Starry eye face emoji.  Vehia Wheeler @_vehia

Co-design for government projects

The benefit of co-design for government projects is that it helps ensure value for money.

That’s because the co-design process relies on the active involvement of the users and stakeholders. This active involvement helps you understand the users’ needs so you can make sure you meet them. It gives you the confidence that you’re spending taxpayer funds responsibly.

Learn more about co-design for digital services.

The co-design project structure

The website is a key part of the Pacific Virtual Museum pilot. This project is funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and implemented by the National Library of New Zealand in collaboration with the National Library of Australia.

The key people working on the project were:

  • the PVM team (Programme Manager Tim Kong, Engagement Manager Taputu Raea, Content Analyst Ulu Afaese)
  • the co-design group (stakeholders and users from across the Pacific)
  • the steering group (governance across the collaboration)
  • the Boost development team (designers, developers and Scrum Masters).

“A super team of academics, historians, collection technicians and curators have united to create the first Pacific Virtual Museum.” Tagata Pasifika TV

Managing tight timeframes

“The first sprint with Boost started about the middle of March 2020. We had to have, in terms of the contract, a public website, an alpha — by the end of April 2020. That was six weeks,” says Tim Kong, “as Aotearoa was going into lockdown”.

Starting with the existing open-source Supplejack digital collection aggregation platform sped up development, but the key to meeting the tight timeframes was the iterative Agile development approach.

The Agile co-design process for this project

Here’s a summary of the Agile co-design process that Tim and the team followed.

1. Understand the domain

Before the development project itself kicked off, the PVM team worked to understand the domain: the users, the outcomes to be delivered, the stakeholders who’d be involved and the context the website would operate in.

2. Discovery workshop

Next up was a Zoom discovery session with the co-design group and the development team. This workshop helped the whole team:

  • build a shared vision of the outcomes they wanted to start with
  • plan how they’d do this.

3. Iteratively building working versions of the website

Each two weeks the development team delivered a working version of the Pacific Virtual Museum website.

The co-design group fed into this process via:

  • weekly design standups
  • fortnightly reviews to demo the latest iteration
  • user testing.

The feedback from these sessions guided the improvements in the next iteration.

Co-design case study learning 1: Building relationships is essential

Tim Kong says that building relationships was critical to the co-design process.

That’s partly because co-design is a partnership. It was also especially important for this project because the relationships needed to reflect and honour a Pacific way. The team wanted to embody the concept of ‘talanoa’, the sharing of ideas, skills and experiences. This approach is common across the Pacific, and sums up the kind of open, active, respectful discussion that drove this project.

“The best outcomes come from creating a space in which people feel safe to contribute,” says Tim.

These relationships are ongoing. They continue beyond the public launch and even when active development on the site is paused. The PVM team continue to meet and share with the group via Zoom, providing fortnightly updates.

Co-design case study learning 2: Co-design works well with Scrum

Tim also found that Scrum was a good fit for a co-design project. He singles out meetings like the review, artifacts like the prioritised backlog and roles like the product owner as being especially influential.

“The reviews are really useful,” he says. “The co‑design group could see that their input had made a difference.”

“One of the powerful things in co‑design is that there’s no wrong ideas, and that as a group we respected that there were constraints on what we can deliver,” he says. “We used the backlog and the co‑design feedback to prioritise. This prioritisation allowed us to deliver on agreed functions and features, and the backlog meant we never rejected proposals — we were just holding them. This was important because it enabled people to remain part of the process.”

“Co‑design doesn’t just mean everyone gets what they want,” he adds.

It helped that in Scrum, the product owner has the final word. This was especially important since Tim had to balance multiple ideas from the co-design team, the DFAT perspectives, as well as what could be delivered within the technical and budgetary constraints.

Co-design case study learning 3: Maximise time with end users

Designer Nick Schuler says that the input from end users was weighted towards the user testing. Next time round, he’d like to include more end users in the discovery phase. That would maximise the value they bring to the process.

Co-design in the COVID era

Attending a PVM review via Zoom. New Zealand’s first COVID-19 lockdown hit just as the project was about to start.

The original plan had been to fly 30 stakeholders, users and the development team for a two-day hui in Auckland. Instead, the discovery workshop had to be run via Zoom and the entire co-design process became remote.

“We moved to do it entirely digitally via Zoom, email and Slack,” Tim says.

But it’s much harder if you’re never face-to-face.

“It’s a challenge to build a relationship over email and Zoom.”

But there were benefits. It meant that they could invite people from outside the original group of 30, and from across the Pacific region, to join the co-design group on an ongoing basis. That said, it was a challenge making the process usefully work for a group, each of whom had their own work impacted by the pandemic whilst being spread across multiple time zones.

“Fantastic work in surfacing the rich history and heritage of the Pacific (even more so this year, with so many museums shut).” Joel Courtney @joelmcourtney

Co-design case study learning 4: Facilitation is key when working remotely

Boost’s Agile coaches Rebecca, Ruka and Mette offer these tips for facilitating co-design meetings when you’re working remotely:

  • Have a dedicated facilitator.
  • Create a team charter together.
  • Spend time getting to know each other.
  • Send out the agenda before meetings.
  • Put in extra effort to make sure everyone gets heard — that’s harder remotely.
  • Keep people open to all ideas.
  • Split the group into breakout rooms.
  • Keep an eye on energy levels and have regular breaks.
  • Leverage individual areas of expertise or experience.
  • Use online collaboration tools like Mural or Jamboards.

“This is amazing work! You should all be proud. We’re working on a redesign right now, and would love to know how you did such a stellar job while working remotely.” @Libraryvixen

The project’s challenging requirements

The goal was to make it as easy as possible for people in and of the Pacific to access the site. This meant the website had to work for people who:

  • often only access the internet using a mobile device
  • have slow connections and costly data caps
  • don’t read English
  • come from multiple countries, regions and cultures, and speak multiple languages.

Screenshot of a Facebook post about the award the PVM team won for making services accessible. The post reads 'Yesterday we received an award from Department of Internal Affairs for - Access to services & information 🎉 The award was for people’s ability to access services and information that affects their lives and wellbeing. At Te Tari Taiwhenua we are designing our services around the needs of our customers and working across government to find opportunities to make government services and information more easily accessible to those who need them. The Services & Information Award acknowledges the significant contribution made by a team or individual to ensure New Zealanders can easily access the information and services they need. Yay to connecting communities to their heritage! NOTE: Ulu is actually very happy about receiving this award 😄'

Award for making services accessible

Their success in doing so was rewarded when the team won the Department of Internal Affairs Access to Services & Information Award.

Designing for constraints

To achieve this result they:

  • set a limit for all pages of 1MB or less
  • included greetings in the main language of each of the 32 Pacific locations
  • highlighted the images of the items
  • highlight key textual information, standardised for every record
  • designed the site to reflect what connects the region: the sea and stars that enabled the voyages of the great Pacific explorers, and the skylines of a myriad of island locations

Just as gratifying as the award was feedback Tim received.

“One of our users said to us, “I like the digitalpasifik site because my Nana speaks English but she doesn’t read English, and you’ve cut the amount of reading she has to do.”

“Fantastic design of the @digitalpasifik site and the search UI in particular chef’s kiss #ux” Kate Lomax @katelomax

Satisfying both end users and institutions

“I’m proud of the benefits for institutions as well as individuals,” says Tim.

While he is chuffed with the interest from major players like the Smithsonian, British Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art, he also likes the way the site shines a light on the collections of smaller institutions.

The Solomon Islands National Museum, for example, has no website. But when they learned about the project they loaded a set of videos onto YouTube so they could be shared on

Another example are the records of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG). Their main website is about their physical location and doesn’t offer any digitised records. But the PVM team found that Deakin University in Australia hosts a digitised oral history collection created in conjunction with DFAT and NMAG. They negotiated with Deakin University to present the records as those of NMAG. In doing so, they shine a light on the work of a Pacific-based institution at no cost to them, and make these records accessible to a wider audience.

“Delighted & humbled to be invited onto @digitalpasifik as a content partner with my show ‘Fiji BC’! It’s great to see Fijian cultural content shared on more online platforms & being on @digitalpasifik is a real boon for #Teamfiji traditional knowledge. Vinaka vakalevu!” Tumeli Tuqota @TumeliTuqota

Co-design case study learning 5: Be open to change

The iterative approach led to changing ideas of what was meant by cultural heritage.

For example, the team knew that, for people from the Pacific, the value of cultural artifacts isn’t in the object in itself. The value is in its use and it’s story, in understanding and celebrating the item. Realising that many Pacific traditions are oral, they decided to hunt out video and audio items. A side benefit of this was that the site has a contemporary aspect that contrasts with the historical bias of many cultural heritage institutions.

They also made a call that traditional knowledge around technology and natural history is cultural heritage too. As indigenous curation expert Dr Tarisi Vunidilo put it, before contact “we were astronomers, food scientists, mathematicians, sailors, artists and navigators in our own right.”

Benefits beyond original expectations

The project also delivered benefits beyond those originally envisaged.

Making their Pacific cultural heritage visible is guiding where institutions put their effort. They can see opportunities to improve the metadata that describes the items in their collections. Auckland Libraries select content that they want to appear on the site by adding a tag in their metadata. Thus, as Auckland Library staff update and maintain their catalogue, their work is automatically made available beyond their website.

Cultural heritage institutions can also see what items they do and don’t have in digital form. Those they don’t have can be digitised. And those they do can be given greater exposure. For example, the project prompted the ABC to highlight their Pacific collection on their own website. In a similar way, Archives New Zealand worked to digitise the Samoan land records they hold, so that they could be accessible on the site.

Treasure for all

The website lets anyone, anywhere explore and be inspired by the records, heritage and history of the Pacific. The vast majority of these records are held outside the Pacific and are often unknown to most Pacific people. By providing access and visibility, the team are hopeful that Pacific people can access stories and heritage that will support them into the future.

The success of the project shows that co-design can deliver results even when you’re working remotely and to tight timeframes.

We hope this co-design case study has given you some insights into how government, cultural heritage institutions and individuals around the world can create services in partnership with the people the services are for.

As well as inspiring the end users, the project was inspiring to work on.

“It’s been an incredibly positive experience,” says Tim Kong.

“It shows the power of reconnecting with what’s ours.” University of the South Pacific records manager Opeta Alefaio

Nick Schuler talks remote co-design at NDF22

The designer of shared more insights in the remote co-design case study he presented at the 2022 National Digital Forum virtual conference.

More digital cultural heritage resources

Sharing digital collections: Guide for galleries, libraries, archives and museums

Accessible digital services for the cultural heritage sector

DigitalNZ cloud migration case study

Copyright for digital cultural heritage

Papers Past digital archive case study

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