Co-producing research with young people online: Insights from a participatory sexual health project

Published: 22 November 2022

Initial insights from a series of online peer-led workshops that were carried out with young people as part of CONUNDRUM Action.

Published 22nd November 2022

By Billie Turner, Ruth Lewis, Carolyn Blake, Rebecca Gascoigne and the CONUNDRUM Action Group.

For co-production initiatives looking to foster collaboration among different groups of stakeholders, the increasing use of online platforms presents exciting opportunities to bring people together in the same virtual room. Participants can attend meetings from a place that suits them, and digital tools such as virtual whiteboards, live chat functions and interactive polling create multiple ways to share and discuss ideas. However, there are also several challenges to doing co-production online: interactions between participants may be less spontaneous, opportunities to build rapport and develop relationships are different, and navigating group dynamics remotely without the cues of in-person interaction can be hard.

In this blog post, we share initial insights from a series of online peer-led workshops that were carried out with young people as part of CONUNDRUM Action - a participatory project aiming to increase young people’s meaningful involvement in sexual health policymaking and service improvement in Scotland. We outline some of the benefits and challenges of doing co-produced peer research online, as well as some practical tips for running online peer engagement workshops.

CONUNDRUM Action: Using online co-production to understand young people’s priorities for digital sexual health

CONUNDRUM Action is a participatory sexual health project which uses online co-production to involve young people in shaping sexual health policy and service improvement. Building on our learning from an earlier study that involved young people in co-developing sexual health research, our research team wanted to create a virtual space to bring young people into direct conversation with professionals who shape sexual health policies and services. We have done this by creating an Action Group involving young people, researchers, and people with remits for sexual health improvement in government, NHS and the third sector (see figure below).

Circular graph describing who was involved with the CONUNDRUM Action Group (20 young people, 1 Scottish Government policymaker, 6 NHS sexual health improvement, 1 partner from third sector SH organisation, 6 research staff)

  • 14 young people from Contraception: Education and Reform Team, Scotland (CERT)
  • 6 young people from Waverley Care Young People’s Panel
  • A sexual health policymaker in Scottish Government
  • NHS health improvement staff from three NHS Scotland health boards (Greater Glasgow and Clyde, Lanarkshire and Lothian)
  • Partners from the third sector (Waverley Care)
  • The CONUNDRUM research team from the University of Glasgow and a sexual health researcher from the University of Southampton.

The Action Group has been working together online since February 2022. We meet on Zoom and use a range of digital tools and platforms (e.g. Google Jamboard, Menti, Padlet, Discord and Slack) to share ideas, dialogue, and feedback in and between meetings.

In our last blog post, we described how the Action Group decided on three things they wanted to collaborate on as a group. One of these was prompted by policymakers within the Action Group saying that they wanted to understand what young people in Scotland want from online sexual health information and support. As a result, the Action Group decided to conduct peer engagement workshops with young people living across Scotland to help develop a set of priorities for digital sexual health information and support. The Action Group decided to use a peer research approach, where young people from the Action Group were involved in co-leading the workshops, with support from the research team.

The stages in this online peer research process can be seen below:

The stages of the CONUNDRUM online peer research process

Screenshots of Google Jamboards from the online peer engagement workshops

An image of a CONUNDRUM jamboard activity

Activity 1 focused on evaluating the content and format of two existing sexual health websites: Brook and NHS Inform. Peer researchers asked young people to give feedback on what they liked and did not like about each website, and how much they trusted the information and why.

An image of a CONUNDRUM jamboard activity

Activity 2 Peer researchers gave young people 12 examples of digital features/ tools that could be used to support sexual health and asked them to rate how important they felt each would be and explain why. 

Benefits of using an online co-production approach to carry out peer engagement workshops

For the research:

Increased accessibility  

  • Removed geographical barriers enabling young people from across Scotland to attend the workshops. The online workshops were run in the evenings after school/ college at a time which best suited the young people attending.
  • Connecting online with different youth organisations from across Scotland enabled the participation of a sociodemographically diverse range of young people.

Achievable within the limited project timeframe

  • The process of organising and delivering online workshops was relatively straightforward compared with in-person.

Live evaluation

  • At the end of each workshop, participants gave live anonymous feedback via Menti polls which enabled peer researchers and the research team to make regular adaptations to the workshop design.
For the peer researchers:

Reasonable time commitment

  • Peer researchers involved in co-producing and co-facilitating the online workshops were able to do this work alongside their other commitments (e.g. part time jobs, university studies).

Capacity building opportunities for peer researchers

  • Peer researchers developed new skills in planning, designing and facilitating online workshops.

Feedback from peer researcher

Co-facilitating the workshops and stakeholder interviews has been an insightful and rewarding experience. Whilst CERT members have highlighted young people’s views throughout the CONUNDRUM Action project, it has been invaluable to gain access to other young people’s digital sexual health priorities, particularly beyond our own demographics. As an organisation, CERT believe that sexual health policy should be representative of all those it encompasses and conducting these workshops has been essential to ensuring CONUNDRUM Action meets its goals. On a personal level, it has provided CERT members with fantastic facilitation experience, undoubtedly supporting them to fulfil future professional goals. These facilitation experiences have granted CERT members involved in CONUNDRUM Action an interactive and enjoyable opportunity to improve our policy skills. - Rebecca Gascoigne, CERT (Contraception: Education and Reform Team, Scotland)

For the workshop participants:
Enabled young people to participate on own terms 
  • The range of interactive digital tools (e.g. meeting chat function, Menti polls) enabled young people to contribute how they felt most comfortable in the online workshops (verbally and/or in writing).
Privacy and confidentiality of participants  
  • Young people were able to participate at varying degrees of anonymity in the online workshops (cameras off, anonymous live Menti polls).

Feedback from live Menti poll with workshop participants:

  • “I liked how inclusive and interactive the workshop was- everyone was involved”
  • “The workshop design ensured we all had ways to engage”
  • “I liked that it wasn’t just constant talking and there were examples to compare things with”
  • “it was a great space to share our thoughts on current (sexual health) services”
  • “Very open non-judgmental space for sharing ideas and opinions”

Challenges of using an online co-production approach

Variation in digital access
  • Variable internet connection and access to devices (e.g. some young people joined from mobile phones, other from laptops/desktops).
Less control over set up/ environment than in-person
  • Some young people joined the workshop in groups from youth centres, others joined using their mobile phones. The variation sometimes affected group dynamics.
Challenges navigating group dynamics
  • In some workshops, peer researchers found it difficult to navigate complex group dynamics (e.g. if some participants were more talkative than others). The mix of cameras on and off and lack of non-verbal cues made it difficult to navigate ‘turn-taking’ in discussions.
  • Online format of the workshop facilitated by a peer researcher meant less opportunity for natural back-and-forth discussion between young people.

Based on our learning from CONUNDRUM Action, here are some tips on how to support peer researchers to facilitate online engagement workshops with other young people. We hope these insights are useful for anyone interested in using online methods for co-production /peer research in future work.

  • Plan an initial meeting with peer researchers to understand any concerns they have about facilitating online workshops and identify any training needs.
  • Spend time building peer researchers’ skills and confidence through online capacity-building sessions tailored to their needs.
  • Discuss safeguarding of young people participating in the workshops with peer researchers and provide signposting to support services.
  • Work with peer researchers to co-develop a clear workshop plan including any materials and resources (e.g. slides and facilitation notes).
  • Carefully consider prompting questions and write a list of useful prompts for peer researchers to have to hand during workshops.
  • Agree clear roles for the workshops (e.g. lead facilitator/ note taker).
  • Organise a pilot workshop with sufficient time to make adaptations to the workshop design based on initial feedback.
  • Establish a mutually convenient instant communication channel (e.g. WhatsApp, Slack) with peer researchers to organise the workshop schedule around their availability and to communicate any last-minute changes in workshop timings or facilitator’s availability.
During workshops  
  • Meet online 10 mins before each workshop to check in with peer researchers and ensure everyone is clear on their roles.
  • Use 10 mins before workshop starts to address any questions or concerns and check the technology set-up/ internet connection is working etc.
  • Aim to have 2 researchers present to support the peer researcher (e.g. by managing the technology, sharing slides, taking field notes and prompting and answering additional questions, if needed). Invite a youth worker from the organisation to attend the session as a familiar face to ensure young people feel comfortable.
  • Ask participants to join five minutes early to address any issues with technology.
  • Spend 5 minutes at the beginning of the workshop on group introductions and warm up activities (e.g. using Menti polls) to give the group a chance to get to know each other and to create a comfortable, welcoming and supportive environment.
  • Make sure there are multiple options for participation in workshops (e.g. chat function) with one facilitator responsible for keeping an eye out for contributions to the group discussion.
After workshops  
  • Ask peer researchers to stay online for a debrief meeting after each workshop to discuss how they felt it went and to address any concerns they may have.
  • Discuss any adaptations to the workshop plan and facilitation notes.
  • Create a shared online space to record field notes and reflections after each workshop (e.g. Google Jamboard). 

Thanks to everyone who has participated in CONUNDRUM Action so far! If you would like to get involved, or if you have any comments or questions about the project, please get in touch at You can also find project updates on Twitter at #ProjectCONUNDRUM.

First published: 22 November 2022