Asking better questions: how we're using the discovery process in public engagement

Discovery can be a useful process to start thinking about how, when and why a challenge should be approached. Haidee Bell explains how we’re using discovery to understand opportunities for public engagement in areas as diverse as mental health research and online health information.

Workshop participant sticking post-it notes on a board

Credit: Steven Pocock / Wellcome. All rights reserved

Discovery – as part of the design process – helps us to gather new understanding about a challenge and approach it in an open way.

"If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions." 

Albert Einstein’s famous statement underlines the challenge in the way we approach problems. We often find ourselves working so hard to solve something, that we fail to see the complexity and gravity of the real issue.

Discovery – as part of the design process – helps us to gather new understanding about a challenge and approach it in an open way. It also helps us ask better questions that draw on insight and experience. 

Why we’re using discovery 

Discovery is a vital process in our strategic design and innovation team. We aim to help tackle health and system challenges across Wellcome’s work through public engagement. 

These challenge areas are often global, sometimes under-explored. Our focus is to identify and support engagement that could affect a whole population.

Over the past year we’ve worked with a range of external partners to help us understand how we might add value to a diverse set of issues. We’ve learned that discovery can guide and add texture to our work. It enables us to:

  1. Understand an issue better – and how it is experienced by the public and approached by research. We can dive in and experience the reality of people affected, whose voices may go unheard. 
  2. Size an issue. Once we start uncovering an issue, we often find there are many connected challenges and routes to change. Discovery is a great spur to action – it helps identify which aspects of the challenge we might want to focus on. 
  3. Quantify the value of tackling an issue. Discovery allows us to look at the numbers associated with an issue and the lived experiences of those affected by it. This helps us gauge – in a head and heart way – the opportunity of doing something and the risks of not taking any action.
  4. Catalyse change through others. By sharing the discovery results – within and beyond Wellcome – we can support action across a wide network of people interested in public engagement.  

What discovery looks like to us

In our team, discovery might start 'inside-out' – led by Wellcome’s science and health interests. Or it can be 'outside-in' – where thinking of the public need first highlights system or equity issues that warrant more understanding. 

Our toolbox is varied and borrowed from different worlds. We work with experts in different fields to draw on the right approach for a given problem area. 

This might lead to social science approaches, media mapping and social listening, human-centred design or learning by making and testing. Some practical methods for doing discovery can be found through IDEO/Design Kit and Nesta.

Over the past 18 months we’ve done discovery work across a wide range of issues. 

Some have already turned into larger scale explorations and programmes. Others have given us pause for thought about routes into bigger challenges. And others have had value in the world beyond Wellcome’s immediate public engagement work. 

We looked at:

  • How might we make mental health research more inclusive? 
    We learned quickly that many barriers experienced by BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people are linked to social inequalities in other parts of their lives. This insight is informing Wellcome’s thinking about how we address diversity in science. We’re sharing more about how we’ve approached this challenge and the opportunities we’ve found in this case study.  
  • How knowing more about menstrual cycles might affect women’s participation in sport? 
    If we knew more about the impact of the menstrual cycle on women and their involvement in sport and physical activity, could better provision be made to support them? An exploration into this issue forced us to adapt our thinking and focus on the experience of 13-15 year-old girls. 
  • How might we enable access to reliable health information online? 
    We looked at how social media could be used to spread useful, high-quality health information among parents – especially around childhood vaccinations. This work revealed the size of the task in competing with misinformation distributors and leveraging 'influencers' on Facebook and other platforms. It forced us to pause, rethink and explore how we might focus our goals. Meanwhile, we are following approaches taken by others around this topic. 
  • How might we strengthen the social sector to improve public engagement?
    Two ideas came out of this discovery work – charity as a platform and citizen research centre. We’re delighted that CAST and Snook have continued the exploration around one of them. They took the idea back to charities to look at what it would take to develop it.

With insights from discovery we are much more easily able to design and trial approaches that might create large scale impact. We’ll continue to use it as we take on new challenges – for example, how to shift global engagement around drug-resistant infections, people-centered approaches to clinical trials and wellbeing at work for the least visible workforce. Discovery enables us to stay curious and to continue to question as we look to create impact and influence in this work. 

I’d love to hear from others about how you approach discovery and set out to ask good questions. You can find me at or on Twitter.  

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