Codesigning Targeted Innovation For Best-Fit Solutions (to Really Big Problems)

Adam DeHeer
LeapFrog Design
Published in
8 min readMar 10, 2021


Codesign: An Origin Story

In the early 1970s, the managers of Norwegian iron and metalworking factories saw a problem on the horizon. Their factories were firmly rooted in the technologies of the industrial age and to maintain their competitive advantage, they needed to enter the digital age. Seeing the exponentially compounding benefits in efficiency and quality that digital technology promised, they knew if they didn’t adapt fast and integrate computer technology into their factories they would quickly become obsolete. They needed to innovate and innovate fast.

Mechanical equipment for precision metal fabrication

Now imagine the people working in the factories. Adding computers to their workflow wasn’t going to be like just giving them a better hammer. They would be asking factory workers to use a computer to control a roboticized factory 🤯 . Computer design was new and it was being done in new ways. Things called user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) needed to be designed for the first time. Never had so much attention been given to how people would interact with technology! Imagine trying to create intuitive software for someone who was familiar with mechanics, not keystrokes and commands, and with no precedents to help guide you — a tall order even for the most creative and talented of designers. Suddenly, there was an opportunity for a new rhetorical question: Who better to ask about the user interface and experience than the users themselves?

Factory workers could use their implicit expertise with the mechanical systems and their workflow to help computer designers build systems the workers would love using. These enterprising factory workers from the Iron and Metalworkers Union had a shared goal with their managers — a smooth adoption of this new technology. Together, they were able to co-create a program whose process was dedicated to the adoption of the new computer technology, directly improving their work experience. So the engineers designed alongside the metalworkers to create the hardware and software the technicians would be using, and thus, codesign in product development was born.

Computers integrated into metalworking

As a result, the union workforce quickly adopted the use of computers. Because the metalworkers helped design the technology, they found it intuitive to use and it made their jobs easier and more enjoyable. This rapid innovation helped support the metal industry and its union’s ongoing success. In 1988, The Iron and Metalworkers Union merged with other leading unions to create the largest trade union in Norway and now holds significant sway over the county’s politics through the Labor Party.

There are lots of codesign definitions floating around, but I think the codesign origin story is one of the best ways to capture the basic principle of the practice: include user participation in design for targeted innovation, best-fit solutions, and quick adoption.

Ok, but what is Codesign exactly?

Codesign is a loose and flexible term that deserves some clarification. For this, there is no better person to turn to than the US codesign pioneer, Elizabeth Sanders. As the leading academic expert on the subject, she has made clear that codesign can be many things at different stages of innovation. In turn, it is a mindset, a method, and a set of techniques. As seen in the approach taken by the Metalworkers Union and their managers, codesigners adopt a curious mindset and a desire to collaborate from the outset. They also use frameworks to organize the collaborative process to best translate participant information into great designs. In the case of the metalworkers, this meant ensuring the hardware and software developed was easy and enjoyable to use. And finally, the facilitators select a set of techniques to be used along the way that best capture the insights needed for great product/user fit.

Sanders’ three forms of Codesign

The techniques and even the method will vary between different kinds of projects, what connects them is the essential practice of including end-users in the design process from beginning to end in order to better identify and meet the needs of future product users.

It’s a Mindset

While codesign is a group activity, it needs an effective facilitator to achieve productive sessions and a successful process. Facilitators should be proficient in the basic skills of listening, analysis, and communication. The analysis of the artifacts produced by participants during codesign can provide the greatest opportunity and greatest challenge to the interpreter. The products of the generative tools are often ambiguous, without clear lines connecting them to design alternatives. However, they provide an exciting new way to inform concept development.

Comparing Classical and Codesign Roles. Seen on the left are the typical classical roles in user-centered design, where the user is viewed as an object for study. Seen on the right, codesign incorporates the user as a subjective agent in the creative process, shifting the roles of researcher, designer, and user (Sanders & Stappers 2008).

It’s a Method

This move from designer-driven product design to user-driven product design has meant many changes for the classical designer. In fact, the roles of designer and user are both changing. With greater user participation in all aspects of the design process, from idea generation to decision making, the role of the designer is shifting toward that of facilitator, interpreter, and translator.

More attention is being given to what Sanders calls the fuzzy front end of design development. This is the point in a design process when brainstorming, goal setting, and concept development occur. As you can see from the diagram, the fuzzy front end is followed by the traditional design process where the resulting ideas for product, service, interface, etc. are developed first into concepts and then into prototypes that are refined on the basis of the feedback from future users.

Sanders & Stappers, 2008

It’s a Technique

The vast array of codesign techniques that can be applied are truly infinite and will be different for each design context. Though the tools vary, they can be roughly organized into three categories based on the purpose and the design stage they are well-suited for.

Cultural probes. These probes are used at the earliest stages of a codesign process. In some cases, collections of activities sometimes referred to as sensitization packages are sent to design participants before group sessions begin. They can be used to prime participants preparing them, and as Visser describes, sensitizing them to engage more deeply with the following design sessions. Cultural probes will also provide the first bits of information.

End-users participating in group collage activity. Photo credit Chou.

Context mapping. In product design, as noted by Sanders and Stappers, the fuzzy front end of design has become a major focus of the design process. Context mapping is just that: using a diverse set of activities to engage participants, facilitators use the material produced by the participants to build a robust understanding of the context in which the design development will occur. Context mapping is also a way of exploring the context in which the design will be used. Thus, context mapping can inform both the design process and the design itself. Visser writes, “In exploring contexts, users are involved in what is called generative research, which inspires and informs the design team in the early phases of the design process” (p. 1).

Generative tools. Similar motivations have inspired the creation of generative tools. These techniques are used in work sessions to engage participants to creatively express themselves in a range of ways. Whereas the cultural probes are used to inform the broader design context, the prompts for these activities focus more closely on the scenarios surrounding the design intervention. There are a wide variety of tools, techniques, and games that can be used during generative sessions. The techniques include collaging, concept mapping, and using interactive models.

Modeling set for idea generation. Photo credit Chou.

Enter: Codesign

Codesign is akin to user‑centered design, which was pioneered by Stephen Draper and Don Norman in 1986 and brought to the public in their book User-Centered System Design: New Perspectives on Human‑Computer Interaction. In the years that followed, IDEO has become famous for their version of participatory design, which they call Human-Centered Design (read LeapFrog’s article on HCD here). User‑centered design has had a great degree of success in creating innovative products in new markets as they apply their method and techniques to problems beyond the digital, tackling design challenges in underinvested communities. While is perhaps the most recognizable practitioner of user‑centered design, the principles of this design approach have been lauded by numerous development and consulting organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Dalberg, DAI Global, and USAID.

However, as the authors of a recent article in UX Magazine have recognized, “as organizations embrace design-led innovation, they can struggle to reap the full value of human-centered design. A design team’s interactions with customers may often be limited to only the early research and late evaluation phases of the design process, while the work in between — when ideas are being generated — is left to the internal team alone. When this is the case, we miss the opportunity to discover some of the most valuable and customer-centered solutions.”

Indeed, savvy designers have recognized the potential for rapid innovation and commercialization gained from agile codesign, many elements of which have become standard practice in the computer industry. As Kuhn and Winograd write, “The emerging common wisdom in the major software-development companies is that it is important to design with the user, rather than to design for the user.” For example, at the 1994 Participatory Design Conference, Tom Erickson from Apple outlined four metrics by which they measure user participation in design.

  1. Directness of interaction with the designers
  2. Length of involvement in the design process
  3. Scope of participation in the overall system being designed
  4. Degree of control over the design decisions

As you well know, Apple has been a global leader in innovation and the creation of products people adore. User-participation throughout the design process is a little-known secret behind their design success.

How We Have Used Codesign

Similar to the Norwegian metalworkers, we at LeapFrog Design see challenges on the horizon — namely large social and ecological challenges such as water scarcity. Freshwater is becoming more scarce and more expensive, and as a commodity, it is becoming more and more valuable. We think there are great ways to increase water security, slow water consumption, and add real meaningful value to people’s lives. We also believe these solutions are needed now. In fact, we needed them yesterday. That’s why at LeapFrog Design, we apply our own brand of codesign so we can bring green infrastructure products to market that people love.

Stay tuned, in an upcoming post I’ll go into more detail on how we use codesign at LeapFrog to develop ecological treatment systems for cleaning and reusing greywater.