Last year, we ran co-design sessions for the first time with immense success. We invited users to edit, revise, and sketch paper prototypes with our designers. We replaced a series of usability interviews with a handful of deep design conversations. Our team’s thinking converged, and we shipped a final design quickly to the leadership and development teams.
Then something happened we didn’t expect.
Our colleagues stayed curious about how the designs were progressing and asked when we would run the sessions again. We found ourselves presenting our co-design experiences in different spaces such as all-hands, engineering meetings, and leadership offsites. Cross-functional teams wanted to know our process and setup. We watched as stakeholders embraced our co-design stories, visuals, and artifacts in ways they hadn’t with other methods. Even better, within a few months teams from other business areas began experimenting with co-design like we had. They saw it as a great way to integrate the customer’s voice into how we build products.
What made co-design more accessible and exciting than our other UX methods?
After much reflection and debate, we settled on 4 reasons. Beyond accomplishing our design goals, co-design evangelized customer empathy in a fresh way. The method shared our messy process of problem solving with stakeholders and customers. And it created exciting opportunities for great storytelling about what customers really need and want.
If you’re looking to bring more customer empathy into your org, we highly recommend you keep these four ideas in mind:
- Co-design produces visuals of what customers think, not just what they say
- Co-design shares the design process
- Co-design offers great storytelling opportunities for all teammates
- Co-design excites customers about what you’re building
Co-design produces visuals of what customers think, not just what they say
Just like a concept map or card sort, co-design produces artifacts that represent what customers are thinking. As a customer shares her experiences, a designer can listen and rapidly sketch new solutions. Then the customer interacts with the prototype by moving pieces around, crossing out words, and adding new ideas. The final prototype becomes a window into how a customer perceives a problem and can uncover solutions not considered before. And when looked at as a collection, multiple prototypes signal patterns that can be powerfully convincing to others. Instead of reading quotes or watching videos, stakeholders can see what customers want by what they co-create with us.
Co-design shares the design process
Co-design builds trust with stakeholders by providing a way to experience the design process. Often, we don’t communicate the messy parts of design thinking when we explore and revise ideas. Instead, we brainstorm on our computers and share highly-visual prototypes with stakeholders once we settle on an approach. We make the messy part invisible and run the risk of simplifying the design process. The artifacts from co-design sessions are unpolished, and a mix of post-its, tape, writing, and paper. They are far from high fidelity. But when we share these prototypes with the final version, stakeholders can see how our problem solving progressed from ideas, to wireframes, to mockups. In seeing the progression, they better understand how and why our final recommendations meet customer needs.
Co-design offers great storytelling opportunities for all teammates
Co-design creates great stories — it involves a lot of people, a lot of time with customers, and a lot of visuals. Our sessions lasted two hours and included at least four teammates: two designers, a researcher, and a product manager. We each accumulated hours of time with customers. We sketched, chatted, laughed, and learned about each other. When the project ended, we shared a collective voice about customers since we had experienced the sessions together and at the same time. And individually, we remembered different nuances about what customers struggled with or found delightful. This combination of collective and individual story-telling made the customers come to life for stakeholders.
Co-design excites customers about what you’re building
The session was incredibly inspiring to me!
I felt like I helped you think from a different perspective, which was great.
I hope you incorporate some of my ideas!
Co-design communicates to customers that we really want and trust their feedback. Since the sessions are highly interactive, customers also learn how we incorporate their struggles into our thinking. They feel heard and appreciated as they edit sketches, move pieces around, and provide insights. After spending two hours with us, our customers shared that it was inspiring to see our commitment and open-minded approach to addressing their needs. They hoped their organizations would use similar strategies to collaborate with users! Even better, each one offered to talk with us repeatedly — without an incentive — because they wanted to see their designs become a reality. They wanted their experiences incorporated into what we decided to build.
As a large UX team, part of our mission is to increase customer empathy among stakeholders throughout our organization. We want our teammates to reflect on what users need and want, not just on what works well for the business. When we decided to try co-design, we never expected any of the benefits here. Perhaps more exciting than meeting our design goals, co-design evangelized the experience of customers better than any other method. Now, all areas of our business are using co-design and the UX organization is making it part of our everyday process. If you want to provide a powerful way for your team to relate to your customers, we highly recommend you try co-design sessions like we did.