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The Why, How, and When of Co-Creation During the Product Development Process

Several definitions come up when you search online for “What is co-creation?” Co-creation isn’t unique to design or product development. The gist of it is to bring different stakeholders together to jointly create a mutually preferred state.

For me, as an industrial designer, co-creation simply means inviting users into your creative process. Users, instead of being subjects of study, gain agency and become active participants in the design process. Co-creation in the design world might take several forms, but most often it’s in the form of a moderated co-workshop that brings together designers, users, and client stakeholders.

Why Co-Creation?

Co-creation solves the challenge of maintaining the voice of the user throughout the project, even after you hand off the research deck. It helps clients and designers empathize with users by working with them and learning about their experiences in an unfiltered way. Instead of passive abstracted personas, clients and designers are faced with real people who challenge assumptions, critique ideas, and cheer when a concept resonates and solves a need.

Another strength of co-creation, beyond activating empathy, is the speed with which you get user feedback. In a typical process you do the research, analyze the research, and use the insights to create concepts. The client reviews the concepts and chooses a few to test with users. Next you flesh out the concepts to make them more real and only then, possibly months later, you get to hear user feedback. In co-creation workshops, you get an instantaneous read on an idea’s viability.

For me, as an industrial designer, co-creation simply means inviting users into your creative process. Users, instead of being subjects of study, gain agency and become active participants in the design process.

Most recently, we ran a co-creation workshop with people who self-inject drugs. As designers, it was valuable to learn more about our user. We got to see people with various limitations use our prototypes and struggle with them in unanticipated ways. We got honest feedback on our concepts and built on them right there and then, and we got inspiration for dozens of new ideas. The client saw for themselves what matters to their users and got to test the viability of their strategy. But what did the users get out of it?

Going into this co-creation workshop, we knew from our previous research that self-injecting is a lonely task. It hurts. It reminds you of your condition and mortality. And you have to do it for the rest of your life. For most of our users this co-creation workshop was the first time they’d talked about their self-injecting to somebody who is not their doctor or a nurse. And even better, they talked to people who also self-inject! And some people had the same indication, even! Our participants, when they weren’t co-creating, chatted and joked over coffee and snacks. They bonded … we saw phone numbers being exchanged … I think it made them feel less alone. For users, the value of co-creation is in being heard.

How To Structure a Co-Creation Workshop

Although co-creation can be used to identify new issues to explore, it’s best to, as much as you can, frame the problem before jumping into the workshop. We typically run a co-creation session only after focusing our efforts through ethnographic research and preliminary analysis.

Running a co-creation workshop requires a significant amount of preparation. You’re basically combining a moderated research session with a brainstorming session. You’ll need a skilled facilitator who can deal with the challenges of focus-group dynamics and who can guide a round-table conversation rather than ask questions and demand answers. You’ll need articulate users. And you’ll need people who are comfortable capturing ideas visually or in the form of rough prototypes.

1. Recruit the right people and prime them for the workshop.

As part of framing the problem, you need to define who your user is and is not — and what you’re trying to learn — before you begin recruiting users for a co-creation workshop. But with co-creation you don’t want to just tick off all the demographics, you want to work with people who enjoy the creative back-and-forth and who are not afraid to express their opinions in public. To get the right people, we video chat with our prospects. We talk with them about their day-to-day life as it pertains to our project to gauge how outgoing they are. We also include a simple question in their recruiting survey, like asking them to list as many uses for a paperclip (other than holding pieces of paper together) as they can think of to see how comfortable they are with divergent thinking.

Their role is to offer insights in real time, inspire new ideas already vetted by users, and to simultaneously bring you back to Earth and poise you for lift-off.

It takes time and effort to find the right people. Four to five people is a good number of users per team to work with designers and a facilitator. To find the eight participants who fit all our criteria for our self-injection co-creation workshop with two teams, we started with nearly one hundred people and filtered out sixteen to evaluate over video chats.

We typically ask our participants to do homework before they come to the co-creation workshop. The homework prepares them to articulate their needs and desires. For the self-injecting workshop, we asked them to journal their most recent injection — when, how, what felt good, what didn’t work, etc. — and take pictures of their set-up and process.

2. Pick a location that doesn’t look like a research facility, and use realistic props and scenarios.

In the past my team has rented a former coffeeshop space that we furnished and decorated to look like a house — with living and dining areas, and bathrooms. We could prototype new household products and test them on the fly in realistic scenarios. Yes, a coffeeshop bathroom doesn’t look exactly like someone’s bathroom at home, but just being in any bathroom leads a participant to provide us with valuable feedback that they wouldn’t volunteer sitting around a conference room table.

A user might offer, “At home I’d do it differently because my toilet is perpendicular to the tub, but here I’m going to do it like this!” We have the opportunity to see how a person uses a product (that we prototyped just a minute ago out of found objects), and we learn organically how they might alter their behavior in a different context without a whiff of a leading question.

Not every budget allows for a customized rented space, but we’ve also been known to turn our usability lab into simulated environments. At the very least, make sure everybody’s sitting at the same table and there’s no physical divide between participants and designers. Getting out of the office also helps clients and designers switch into a more creative mode of thinking.

3. Loosen up participants before you start to brainstorm.

Don’t jump immediately into ideation — instead, linger at getting to know people and their lives to provide more context for concepts and to get participants comfortable talking and sharing in front of an audience. People love to talk about themselves — it’s the easiest topic and everybody’s favorite topic, after all! Provide a variety of drinks and snacks — breaking bread together, even in the most informal of ways, increases people’s trust.

Some people get very self-conscious about their creative abilities, and you’ll see them freeze up and stop participating. To remedy this, we usually have a couple of designers on hand who can sketch ideas based on participants’ experiences and stories. This helps participants visualize what they can’t quite capture themselves. A quick drawing on a half sheet with a Sharpie and a color or two is enough to make an idea real and memorable.

When To Use Co-Creation

Co-creation shines when you need to get feedback and prototype fast, when the problem is well-defined, and when empathy with the user can’t be diluted. It might not be the best tool if your project is looking too far forward for the user to fully imagine.

In her TED Talk, “How to Manage for Collective Creativity,” Harvard Business School professor, Linda Hill says, “When many of us think about innovation … we think about an Einstein having an ‘Aha!’ moment. But we all know that’s a myth. Innovation is not about solo genius, it’s about collective genius.”

Her quote reminds me of a powerful “collective genius” aha moment we had during the self-injectable drug workshop when our arthritic participants tried using our very early syringe prototypes. “I just can’t hold it this way!,” they told us. That moment led to removing all non-viable concepts from the running that same day and focusing our efforts on ideas that worked with our users’ limitations.

We went back to the drawing board. You don’t go into a co-creation workshop expecting participants to come up with well-defined, fleshed out concepts — their role is to offer insights in real time, inspire new ideas already vetted by users, and to simultaneously bring you back to Earth and poise you for lift-off with quick, immersive feedback.

If you liked this, you might like Five Innovation Methods To Try with Your Team.