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Understanding Co-Design to Unlock Essential Insights

Are you ready to run a successful co-design session?

Gathering research and information to make calculated decisions on products and designs is a regular practice for designers. Various methods for getting this information exist, but one valuable method stands out from the rest.

Co-design is a research methodology that brings together end users and domain experts early in the design process (Sanders, E.B.-N., Braun, E. and Singh, S. 2018.). It’s unique in that aspect because we invite the people who will be using the products we’re designing and ask them to collaborate alongside us.

Co-design aims to bring the end users into every stage in the design process. Our end users will play an important role in moving the design from the exploration phase all the way to the prototyping and testing phase. Gathering their valuable opinions at every point in the design journey is an incredible experience, and it’s an opportunity that should be embraced by the UX design team.

Like any brainstorming workshop, a series of operational tasks that need to be completed before facilitating. However, before you gather your supplies or check calendars for open dates, we also need to look inward to mentally prepare for a co-design session. Reaffirm for yourself and the team that co-design is the right method to solve the problem at hand.

Do we need co-design?

While gathering information in real time from end users in the room seems like the ideal solution, certain scenarios exist that may suggest a different research methodology. Consider running a co-design session if:

  • Information about the challenge and the end user perspective is limited.
  • The project timeline allows for this kind of research.
  • The path forward is unclear.

There are times where a co-design session is neither necessary nor feasible – especially if our team is further along in the process and just need to carve out some time to generate ideas, mockups, or a tangible design to present to stakeholders. Design sprints are perfect for those situations and are structured to get us from point A to point B fast.

Take the time to understand if a co-design session is even possible, well before we ask for participants or begin planning the day of logistics.

Find the right participants

Outside of the recruited participants, make sure the team included in the study come from a variety of disciplines. From UX designers to key product stakeholders, it is important to include the product delivery team in the study. More importantly, we need to get the end users into our sessions.

The distinct characteristic of co-design sessions includes bringing the end users and stakeholders early into the definition and vision stage. Here, we get the opportunity to learn about their experiences and ideas, which inform what features should make it into the final product. It saves time and resources to incorporate schematics that will be invaluable to the end user at the start, rather than realize it’s a necessity during a later iteration.

The value of bringing in these end users cannot be overstated. The interactions during these sessions lead to a broader understanding of the challenges, needs, and desires of our end users. We plan activities to gather targeted insights from our participants that we can take direct action on during the development and creation stages. These sessions tap directly into our end users’ expertise. Access to this information help shape and create a product that that will provide real benefit to them – and drive adoption post-launch.

Create the safe space

Asking for participants to share not only what they expect from a product, but also their deep and personal experiences, is a tall order. And we need to create the space for them to communicate in the way that is most comfortable for them. Depending on the project, or the group of people we’re creating for, those people may not wish to divulge personal information about themselves.

A safe space isn’t just about ensuring their physical wellbeing – creating a safe space allows for everyone to open and share deep insights into their experiences and needs. It goes beyond surface level reasoning and provides the facilitators the opportunity to completely understand why they would get value from the product we’re creating. Try some of these facilitating tips from Adam F.C. Fletcher, writer, speaker, and consultant focused on human engagement and meeting facilitation.

  1. Acknowledge that everyone brings preconceived ideas about others – or prejudices – that can damage others and ourselves.
  2. Focus and limit our conversations until trust within the group increases.
  3. Seek true dialogue and ask relevant questions.
  4. Encourage participants to examine their personal assumptions by checking in with others rather than hiding or defending them.
  5. Speak from personal experience by using “I” statements and avoid making generalizations about others.

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Leave bias at the door

As experienced and accomplished designers, we create a wide variety of products. When we need to create a product but have little information on the challenges, needs, and desires of the end user, we’re designing based only on what we think is correct. Any research we gather in the process ranges from competitive research or examining data. But if there is minimal interaction with end users, we’re left to make assumptions on what we think users need to solve the problem we are designing for. In doing so, we fail to consider the user. As a result, we unwittingly bake our own bias into the solution.

Co-design mitigates this problem. We’re gathering input from end users, enough so that we can make informed decisions for our designs and products down the road. By generously listening and taking this time to understand their challenges, needs, and desires, we shift the focus from us to them, precisely where it should be.

Regardless of how strongly we believe in them, it’s essential that we set aside our own solutions during co-design. We don’t enter these sessions with the answers to their problems, even if we think we have them.

Final check-in

If you now feel more prepared to launch into your co-design session, that’s great! If you have more questions, that’s a natural reaction. Good co-design is challenging work, but there are plenty of resources out there to support you as you get your feet wet.

Your first step is to understand what you want to learn from your participants and to begin planning the activities to get those answers.

Design is a team sport. Turn to other designers and researchers in the community – learn together and prepare well to get the answers you need. Here are some of our favorite resources to get started on your co-design journey:

  1. Articles and videos from Liz Sanders, the founder of MakeTools and a longtime practitioner of co-design.
  2. Additional resources for creating a safe space from Amplifier.
  3. An analysis on the importance of user research in design from Arin Bhowmick, Chief Design Officer at SAP.

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Headshot of Lead UX Designer and Blog Author Shannon Baird.

Shannon Baird is a Lead UX Designer at ITX. She thrives on solving challenging problems with a user-centered design process, taking problems through research, ideation, prototyping, and testing design phases. Shannon earned her BFA in New Media Design from Rochester Institute of Technology.

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