Co-Creation: Designing With the User, For the User

Company One has an excellent UX department, and begins their projects with discovery. They pride themselves on reading user research reports, understanding their users, and developing products with the user in mind. Company Two also has an excellent UX department, but they don’t use reports or create personas. Crazy? Maybe. Poor UX? No! Company Two brings their users into the office, to co-create.

In the past decade, new technologies ranging from Twitter to customer service chat-windows have led to an increase in the quantity and quality of interactions between people and organizations. But listening to user feedback isn’t where the company-user interactions end. Today more than 50% of Fortune 500 companies have made co-creation an integral part of their innovation strategy, as Andrew Welch—Chief Executive Officer of Y&R reports.

Yet in user experience design, most organizations take a traditional approach to user research and design, using a researcher to act as a middle-man between users, designers, and business stakeholders. Users are consulted in the process, but not given creative control over solutions.

Co-creation is an alternative, collaborative approach that brings UX teams closer to their future users. It’s an approach that increases the user’s direct involvement; teams literally design concepts in collaboration with their end-users. In this article we’ll explore how this process of co-creation can ultimately improve the quality of output, and the end user’s experience.

What is co-creation?

Co-creation is defined by Prof. Thorsten and his colleagues at London Research and Consulting group, an emanation from the London School of Economics and Political science, as “an active, creative and social process, based on collaboration between producers and users, that is initiated by the firm to generate value for customers.” Gouillart, president and co-founder of the Experience Co-Creation Partnership, explains that “The idea of co-creation is to unleash the creative energy of many people, such that it transforms both their individual experience and the economics of the organization that enabled it.”

The key to co-creation lies in engaging, working with, and empowering people to generate ideas and to collaboratively create concepts. Co-creation is based on the belief that the users’ presence is essential in the creative process, as the users provide insight into what is valuable to them. At its core, this means that co-creation is literally any process that brings together users and designers to work toward a shared goal. In practice, this often takes the form of a collaborative workshop in which business stakeholders, researchers, designers, and end-users explore a problem and generate solutions together, taking into account their different approaches, needs, and points of view. The end goal of co-creation is the same as that of research and concept design: to identify a solution that provides users with better experiences, and organizations with improved and innovative services.

It’s important to note however that user involvement is not sufficient to define co-creation; co-creation requires an active engagement of all actors in the process. The full co-creation approach includes a number of steps from research, to workshop design and implementation of solutions, any and all of which can be blended easily into a traditional UX process.

The co-creation process

A traditional UX approach, vs.the co-creation process

The primary benefit to co-creation is the way in which it increases empathy among stakeholders and designers. In traditional research techniques, stakeholders observe users from a distance, behind a one-way mirror or via video link-up. Co-creation, on the other hand, forces businesses and designers to confront the realities of customer emotions – be that happiness, joy, anger, or frustration – and the motivations behind their behavior. This collaborative approach promotes constructive reflection and dialogue where all parties involved are equal, and working together towards a shared goal.

As a secondary benefit, co-creation processes are often more efficient than traditional design research. A well designed co-creation workshop forces all parties to discuss the problem and solutions together, and essentially combines the research period with the discovery and requirements-creation phases of a project. In addition, because designers are involved directly in uncovering requirements, they are better able to understand the reasons behind the requirements, which leads to better decision making during later design phases.

In one study conducted at Hilti AG, Hestatt and Von Hippel involved 12 experienced constructors to redesign pipe hangers. In a three-day workshop, involving both lead users and Hilti employees, they came up with a new concept at half the cost of a traditional approach. With a traditional approach, it would have taken 16 months and $ 100,000 to develop a new concept, produce and evaluate it, compared to the 9 months, and $ 51,000 required by the participative approach.

Co-creating an app for tea drinkers

At experience design agency Foolproof, we adopted a blended approach of traditional research methods and co-creation workshops to create an application to enhance the tea drinking experience. The goal of the mobile app was to promote interaction, relaxation, or distraction. We began with a traditional research approach, as a researcher observed user behavior to discover unmet needs and desires. We followed this up with three co-creation workshops with the client, designers, and end-users where participants designed solutions to meet customer and business needs.

During the workshops, participants were asked to describe their own tea drinking experiences and what a “tea break” meant to them. The researcher then shared insights from his observations. Together they generated ideas, rated each idea on a sliding scale, and refined both the ideas and their execution.

The benefit of combining a traditional approach with co-creation was that we learned about behaviors that consumers were not consciously aware of—which the team might also have observed during usability testing. However, in the workshop, the designers were then able to use this information as a starting point to sketch out a user flow, and see immediate user reactions. As a result of this shortened feedback loop, the group as a whole generated ideas that were richer and more relevant.

Co-creation: difficult truths

Co-creation is not a new idea; participatory design techniques have been in use since the 1970s, when Kristen Nygaard and Olav-Terje Bergo worked with the Iron and Metal Workers Union in Norway. Yet co-creation is still underutilized, in part because it requires organizations and designers to develop a new mind-set, and to accept three difficult truths:

  • There is more than one expert
  • Everyone can be creative
  • We can all listen

There is more than one expert

Innovation can come from anyone, not just the “experts.” It may sound obvious, but this is one of the main barriers to companies considering co-creation as Nicholas Ind, a co-creation expert, and his colleagues wrote in their book, Brand Together. Companies that adopt a humble approach and engage users, recognizing they have their own special expertise, are not only able to have a positive impact on the quality of the experiences they deliver, but get an invaluable understanding of what happens out there, to real people in the real world, with the services and products that they deliver, in a more genuine and authentic way.

Everyone can be creative

As Charles Leadbeater, a leading authority on innovation and creativity and researcher at the London think tank Demos, reports in his book, We-Think, research has shown that groups with diverse skills and outlooks generate smarter solutions than a heterogeneous group of experts with shared outlooks. In practice, business stakeholders and users are often nervous about taking part in co-creation sessions, believing that they are not qualified since they are not “designers.” To help them through this, a good facilitator will highlight that we are looking for diversity and that everyone has specific knowledge and experience that they can bring to the process. Facilitation techniques like LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® can also help to build confidence; most people have used LEGO® before and know how to use it to create something new and the playful experience helps participants to overcome barriers and to unleash the inner creative talents.

An MBA manager taking part in a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® (LSP) workshop admitted before we started that he was unsure about how he could contribute because he was a business person and not a creative person. The LSP method requires participants to build metaphorical models with LEGO® blocks about a topic and tell stories about it through the model. He enjoyed engaging with the bricks so much that he discovered his inner storyteller and made a valuable contribution to the discussion.

We can all listen

It’s a common misconception that only trained researchers know the correct etiquette for talking to users. But with proper guidance from a facilitator, any group can learn from user insights! A good facilitator will often remind the team to be respectful of different viewpoints and seek to understand rather than evaluate. This way, everyone is prepared to contribute, rather than judge, and empathize with user needs.

Getting started with co-creation

Co-creation isn’t right for every project. It requires significant stakeholder involvement, and requires planning and an open mind. But when it is right there are a few steps to help ease the team into the process. Consider these suggestions before jumping in:

  • Evaluate if the organization is ready. Not all organizations are ready to take on the challenge of involving customers in the creative process. Consider the beliefs that people on the design team hold about how innovation works—if they’re not ready to accept that ideas come from the users, then they’re not ready for co-creation. It may take time to challenge long-held beliefs, but it’s worth waiting until the design team can keep an open mind before bringing users in to work with them.
  • Explore the problem and context. Before bringing users into the process, make sure everyone on the design team understands the reasons behind the new product launch or innovation. This will help the team to feel they are a part of the process, and it will make it easier for them to welcome the users and learn from them.
  • Consider who to involve. Finding the right participants is the key to successful co-creation. Think about the target customers, and involve a mix of primary persona types to help bring different perspectives to the process. Invite business stakeholders with technical knowledge or market insights, and keep the group to fewer than twelve people, in order to ensure productivity.
  • Schedule the session carefully. Co-creation works best when it’s highly structured. A detailed script, specific milestones, and workshop goals will provide participants with a clear idea of what to expect and how to succeed.
  • Include a strong facilitator. Facilitation is particularly important when bringing together diverse groups of people. A good moderator will have an understanding of design methods and approaches, and will excel at managing group dynamics to make the most of everyone involved.
  • Take action. The worst thing an organization can do is to disregard the outcomes of a co-creation session. If the business doesn’t do anything with the findings and ideas, then not only have they wasted time and energy, but participants will feel ignored. By taking action, the organization shows users that it cares about their input, but even better, they will make use of their most valuable asset: user insights.

Further reading

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