I’m a baker, so I like having a recipe to follow. It’s comforting to have a set of ingredients and a list of instructions to start with — even if I treat the recipe as more of a guide than directions for a science experiment. Knowing where to start, and what I will most likely end up with at the finish helps me feel like I know what I’m doing, and means new recipes still have a sense of familiarity to them.

Research, or other projects, are similar. We generally have an idea of what ingredients and equipment we need, along with a recipe — or plan — of what we need to do to reach the outcome at the end. These plans are comfortable and familiar. They help us feel like we’re on the right track, and even when things don’t go as expected, we can figure out where things are different from the original plan, and either solve them or make a new plan from there.

Co-production is not like that.

In my experience so far, co-production is more like one of those team challenges in a MasterChef bake off — they’ve asked you to make a selection of items for afternoon tea and left it at that. Except you also don’t know who’s in your team, and your test kitchen hasn’t been kitted out. So before you can start, you need to figure out who’s in the team and what equipment you might need or have available — partway through you might also discover you’re actually in a field kitchen rather than the test kitchen!

Making a selection of items for afternoon tea sounds clear enough, but when you start thinking about it, you realise how many possibilities there are. Using co-production to create a selection of research questions about women’s health that are a priority to women is similarly broad. We’ve had to grapple with questions such as “Is women’s health all health issues that impact women?” or “Is it only those health issues that just women experience?”

When you don’t have a clear recipe to follow, it can be pretty hard working out where to start — the ingredients you use are influenced by what equipment you have available, and vice versa.

An illustration of a stick figure hanging from a cake floating in the sky.

Thankfully, unlike a MasterChef challenge, we don’t have a ridiculously tight time limit. We’ve been able to take our time getting to know each other in the core research team. A key principle of co-production is prioritising relationships, so developing the team and designing foundational values has been important.

In co-production, the people or communities who are likely to benefit from the project need to be involved all the way through, and their lived experiences valued. To keep the MasterChef kitchen image going, before we could start making any afternoon tea items, we need to know who’s going to be eating the afternoon tea. Then we can make sure we meet any requirements they have, and use what’s important to them to help make the decisions we make.

So far in The Co-production Project, we’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to women about what’s important to them when it comes to women’s health. We connected with these women through the charity Good Bitches Baking, who I already had a relationship with. These women are volunteers for the charity, whose aim is to bake the world a better place.

Through conversations with this community we have been able to start considering areas for women’s health that research questions can be developed about with their input. Fittingly, we’ve mostly talked over a cuppa and cake. This more informal style helps us to take the time to build connections and listen to their experiences.

I wouldn’t say we’ve got a test kitchen kitted out yet, nor have we figured out an ingredients list. But we are getting more comfortable at sitting with the discomfort of having no recipe to follow.


Anjuli Muller is a PhD student and TPM Whānau member exploring co-production and participatory public engagement through the subject of women’s health in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Jean Donaldson is a designer and native bird fanatic based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. You can see more of her work at https://jeanmanudesign.com/.