Utilizing Co-Design to Create Market-Driven Products

By Patrick Howell August 01, 2009

When it comes to creating new products, most are never influenced or validated by the actual people who buy and use them. All too often, products are conceived by designers in the following way:

“What a great idea! I don’t know what market problem it solves or what market need it fills, but I know ‘I’ will like it.”

Designers are not typically users of a product, yet they often engineer a product with little or no end user involvement—and without understanding in advance how it will be received by the targeted audience. It’s a risky proposition. Unfortunately, history suggests that most products designed in this way will be market failures.

To design a successful product, you must figure out who is going to use it and understand what problem it is solving. But let’s take it one step further…for maximum success, products should be co-designed by the intended audience.

What is co-design?

Co-design is a participatory design practice following User-Centered Design (UCD). It involves targeted users—whether they are responsible for buying the product or simply using it—to create market-driven products that create more customer demand, user adoption, satisfaction, and, ultimately, product profitability.

By interacting, observing, and understanding what users need—and by bringing target users in from the outside to design products—co-design increases the likelihood of product management (and product!) success. Beyond that, by getting users involved to co-design the product early on, you can avoid the costly fixes later due to committing expensive resources and time without a user-centric design.

Before you begin a co-design project

There are three key points to consider before embarking on any co-design project:

  1. Collaboration is king. Co-designed products are created with designers, customers, and/or users working together collaboratively. It is not just a process—it’s a philosophy. The designer holds target users in high esteem and considers them experts in the product area because they ARE. Customers and users participate as equal members on the design team.
  2. Keep it in context. Through user research or contextual inquiry—the study of users in their environments—product managers are able to identify “problem opportunities” and verify them by observing and gathering field data from users in their daily context. This contextual knowledge serves as the initial input to create user personas, scenarios, and, eventually, a design solution. What’s important to remember: The more time you spend understanding user context, the less time and money you will spend solving the problem.
  3. Start by defining the “who.” A product must be designed to enable users to achieve goals—effectively and efficiently making his/her tasks easier to perform with the product than without it. User personas (profiles) are created to baseline user needs, expectations, demographics, and target market segmentation. Clearly defining who will be using the product is the most critical step before co-design can begin.

Answering key questions BEFORE a design workshop

Interviews, user observation, and user surveys will help you understand user goals and tasks. Unlike traditional interviews, these techniques consist of watching users do their work and interact with colleagues. Here’s what to look for:

  • Are users efficient?
  • Do they have the information they need?
  • What information is most relevant?
  • What are the environmental conditions like?
  • Are there environmental constraints?
  • What is automated vs. manual?
  • What is missing?
  • Do they have physical constraints?
  • What are their key job requirements?

The goal is to gather as much data as possible from these exercises to define the characteristics of your audience and what problem(s) your new design will solve.

Tips for planning an effective co-design workshop

Proper planning is essential to conduct a co-design workshop. Here are some tips that will help you achieve co-design success:

  • Be prepared. Review all of your research and analysis to ensure thorough knowledge of the problem domain. How are users accomplishing things today? What are the issues? Create user scenarios that represent current workflows to utilize during the co-design session. Prepare an agenda with a clear understanding and purpose of each agenda item and the techniques you will use. Confirm attendees and ensure all participants are notified of dates and times.
  • Choose participants carefully. Attendees at the co-design workshop should include:
    • A facilitator and also a separate note-taker to capture detailed field notes
    • A minimum of two target users and a maximum of eight
    • One developer (engineer) to gain insight, user context, and the buy-in of others
  • Location, location, location. Reserve the right type of space—participants must be comfortable during the workshop. Plan to use flip charts and Post-it notes to capture details and concepts. Make sure to have plenty of table space and a whiteboard. Bring a digital camera to capture whiteboard notes and concepts.
  • Give your users a voice. Always remember to ensure you give users a voice in the co-design process. They know more than you do about their jobs, experience, use environments, needs, and wants. Understand that they are never wrong. Don’t tell them what they should do. Don’t lead them; they often will simply follow. Lastly, remember who will be buying the product after its release.
  • Identify product champions. These customers/users are incredibly creative and provide fantastic product ideas and solutions. They will want to stay involved long-term.

Guiding a co-design workshop to optimize results

Having up to eight people in a working session at the same time can be challenging. Providing structure will keep the workshop focused and productive. Here are three steps to help you guide a successful co-design workshop:

Step 1

Get started

  • Clearly communicate the agenda and then ask participants to introduce themselves. Next, provide a quick overview of what usability means; this will be an opportunity to get participants thinking about useable products and why they are participating as experts. Clearly communicate objectives and expectations, and identify what each participant expects as an outcome of the workshop.
  • Referencing user scenario diagrams, discuss existing system and domain issues and validate the workflow. Be sure to capture refinements through diagramming to extract and structure the issues. It puts your participants’ input into proper context. When finished, identify and document the usability goals that the design must meet. Does the product need to enable efficiency? Does it need to be easy to learn? How frequently will it be used?

Step 2

Let the co-design begin

  • After goals have been defined and are visible to all participants, let the co-design exercise begin! Use some unfinished concepts or competing products as a catalyst, good and bad, to get the creative juices flowing. You will learn just as much from the bad ideas as you will from the good. Most importantly, your participants will be encouraged to contribute.
  • Engage users for concepts, but never reject an idea. Simply put it on the back burner for future use or another need. When hearing suggestions, have that person illustrate or draw the concept rather than the facilitator. It will create a sense of ownership.
  • Tape concepts and screens (if a software product) to the wall for all to see. Keep moving around the room to keep it interactive and exciting. The more fun participants are having, the better the design session.

Step 3

Test and validate

  • The co-design process is iterative. After the session, the designer uses the output of the workshop as a design input. Users aren’t off the hook yet! After a high-level prototype product has been developed, conduct a usability study to test the refined design. This form of testing is performed one-on-one between facilitator and user. Through structured usability testing of tasks, the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction of the design can be measured without leading or influencing users.
  • Target users will again give you valuable insight and feedback, which helps refine the design before expensive development begins. Depending on the complexity and size of the design effort, this step is often repeated to cover different features and/or design enhancements.

Back to the future

Before you release your product to market, create mechanisms to monitor what users and buyers think of your product. Build an online community experience that allows users and buyers of your product to share ideas with one another. Users will openly discuss popular features…and those that are not. You will literally get a glimpse into future improvements.

In addition, users may provide insight to unintended uses of the product. Either a new market opportunity or new feature ideas will surface. The best way to maintain the life cycle of your product is to know what users will want in the future.


Categories: Working with Development Requirements
Patrick Howell

Patrick Howell

Patrick Howell is VP of Product Design for neubloc, LLC., an international software product design Patrick Howell is VP of Product Design for neubloc, LLC., an international software product design and development firm. He has more than 20years experience as an interaction architect and graphic user interface designer. He leads a team of award-winning Information Architects, Usability Engineers and Graphic Designers. neubloc helps their clients produce market-driven products, from strategy to execution and maintenance using onshore and offshore resources. To contact neubloc, email phowell@neubloc.com or info@neubloc.com or visit www.neubloc.com

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