The Power of Co-creation

Co-creation is a design approach that allows teams to achieve excellent results very fast. That said, it’s better suited to some cases than others. Having worked in several large-scale co-creation projects over the past few years, I have some insights on where it produces the best results.

What is co-creation? The best way to understand it is by examining how other design approaches work. Many follow a process similar to the one represented in the double diamond model:

Image © The Design Council (https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/news-opinion/design-process-what-double-diamond)
Image © The Design Council

The team starts by defining the problem to be solved. Team members research the problem domain, analyze the possibilities, and converge towards a problem definition. When the problem is understood, they can move on to developing the solution. Normally, designers, researchers, stakeholders, developers, and users are assumed to be separate parties in such a process.

Much of the work in the discover and define stages is in service to establishing a clear understanding of project opportunities and constraints. This includes, of course, understanding user needs and technological possibilities. This mostly happens through research: interviews, contextual inquiries, competitive assessments, search log analysis, and so on. Lots of data is generated at this stage, which must be analyzed to generate insights. These insights are then presented back to stakeholders and users at various levels of fidelity for feedback. All of this back-and-forth takes time.

Co-creation proposes an alternative approach. Instead of treating designers, users, stakeholders, and developers as separate parties, representatives from these groups are brought into the design team. They all act as designers, with the “professional” designers among them acting as facilitators. By doing this, co-creation bypasses much of the early-stage work by deriving insights directly from the people who will be impacted. Usually, this happens in intensely focused hands-on workshops that produce low-fidelity models, formal directions, and prototypes.

This is not to say that the team ignores research data altogether. If such data is available, the team will study it beforehand. Also, sometimes co-creation workshops will reveal significant gaps in understanding, which lead to more focused research initiatives.

The upside is that in​ many situations, co-creation can produce important insights and directions faster a more traditional design approach. As I said, this approach works better in some cases than in others. The cases where it works best include highly focused contexts with users who understand the situation well. For example, this could be the design of a complex dashboard in an industrial process. Expert users of such a system often have very clear mental models of how the system works. The focus of the co-creation exercise is then to translate these mental models into conceptual models and ultimately user interfaces.

The converse is also true: the co-creation approach doesn’t work as well in cases where the target audience is very broad or the context poorly understood. This could include systems that are very new or radically innovative, which by definition have no expert users. But many applications fall outside of this definition, and in these co-creation can help accelerate the design process while achieving excellent results.

There are some potential pitfalls to be mindful of. Sometimes it can be difficult to secure the participation of end users for legal, financial, or political reasons. In these cases, there will be a temptation to co-create only with stakeholders and/or developers. While doing so may still produce some interesting insights, it’s not nearly as powerful or effective as when real system users are part of the team. Another possible pitfall is that co-creation often moves to produce actionable artifacts much faster than other design approaches. While this sounds like a good thing, it can sometimes backfire if other people in the organization are expecting to see lots of research data presented back as justification for design decisions.

That said, in many situations, co-creation can help design teams make lots of tangible progress very fast. Interestingly, this includes very complex systems design challenges that would otherwise require lots of upfront research and time. And savings come not just from the research and design work: because users and stakeholders are part of the design process, co-creation also helps bypass many of the political challenges that come from trying to sell such projects inside organizations.