What is Co-Creation?

The purpose of co-creation is not to elicit creative ideas and direction from everyday people, but rather to seek their help in ensuring that the product and service ideas of creative people are made relevant and meaningful to users and their contexts.

C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy first popularized the concept of co-creation in their 2000 Harvard Business Review article, “Co-Opting Customer Competence.”

Co-creation was introduced into the management lexicon as an economic strategy that brings different stakeholders in a value chain together in order to produce a mutually valued outcome. Value arises in the form of personalized, unique experiences for the customer (value-in-use) and ongoing revenue, learning and enhanced market performance drivers for the firm (Wikipedia).

Some of us in the design field have relentlessly evangelized co-creation for over two decades. We have been primarily interested in using the wider framework of co-creation to guide the product development process.

The purpose of this article is to bring clarity to what the practice of co-creation means when managing new product/service design.

First principles

First, to understand co-creation one must understand some of the underlying principles.

The purpose of any product or service is to generate value — for both the end users and for those involved in production and distribution of the product or service.

The value of a product or service is actualized only when the end users buy it, place it within their environment, start using it, and sometimes modify it to suit their requirements.

It is difficult for a designer to predict what value the end user will ultimately find in his/her product. Making investments in developing a product without iterative feedback from the end users from the beginning of the design process is risky.

Alternatively, involving end users in simulating future use scenarios during the early stages of the design process helps designers and product planners develop an understanding of the potential value of their product as the concepts are developed and refined.

Co-creation taps into everyone’s capacities to dialogue, reflect, and create.

During a co-creation process, creators, distributors and consumers of products collaborate, negotiate, and consider trade-offs while deciding on optimal ways to meet end user needs & aspirations.

Engaging an entire family in developing solutions to their shared needs helps tap into the latent wisdom of the family.

These principles succeed especially well in products and services that have open and public participation. For example, Wikipedia and YouTube provide value through a continuous and iterative process of co-creation: the company builds and refines the the software platform and the tools, whereas the users contribute the content. The success of these products suggests that designing with people produces more successful results than the outdated approach of designing for people, in isolation.

Outcomes of Co-creation

The outcomes of the co-creation process are many and significant. 
Co-creation:

  • Reduces the risks associated with the introduction of new products and services
  • Reduces the steps and time required in iterative product development
  • Cultivates in designers the capacity to design with empathy for the end users
  • Helps organizations envision future use scenarios when working on innovations that disrupt established mental models and habits
  • Motivates teams to collaborate across silos and gain access to the knowledge, expertise and wisdom trapped within those silos
  • Creates greater customer loyalty and commitment to a brand and product/ service

One argument often posed against co-creation is that one can’t design by committee. Another is that everyday people or average consumers are not creative, therefore asking them what they want is a futile exercise that will inevitably lead to mediocre products. Implicit in this line of thinking is the belief that innovation should be left to designers and formally trained or professional creative people. A famous phrase spoken by Henry Ford is often evoked when challenging the co-creation mindset: “ If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

This argument can be easily rebutted. The purpose of co-creation is not to elicit creative ideas and direction from everyday people, but rather to seek their help in ensuring that the product and service ideas of creative people are made relevant and meaningful to users and their contexts. In a co-creation process, if people want faster horses, we do not design faster horses; rather we try to understand why they want faster horses and find innovative ways of moving people faster.

Mental models can be revealed through cognitive mapping exercises

Examples of co-creation

We have used co-creation to meet a variety of objectives. For example:

  • To elicit community participation in envisioning how the natural history of their state should be told through their state history museum (Connecticut History Society Museum)
  • To align the vision of experts in different domains of knowledge with the creativity of design teams in a global corporation to co-imagine the future of wearable products (Motorola)
  • To engage the creativity of global suppliers (licensees) of accessories for Barbie and Hot Wheels to generate themes for design of locally relevant accessories (Mattel)
  • To develop an industry-wide vision for the future of in-vehicle smart experiences (Johnson Controls/Yanfeng Automotive)
  • To develop a user experience framework to help the online advertising industry understand how to use video ads to effectively communicate with families (Tremor Video and Marriott Hotels)
  • To co-develop innovative flavors for chips through the participation of consumers, chefs and food technology experts (Frito-Lay)
  • To co-imagine future of design education (a spontaneous online movement)
  • To develop user experience criteria for 3D gaming controllers (Microsoft)
  • To explore future scenarios for using tablets in K-12 education in emerging markets (HP)
  • To explore the impact of good and poor posture in work environments (Steelcase)
  • To inspire innovative products along the food journey (Whirlpool)

Through years of experience we have learned that introducing co-creation in an organization is difficult because it challenges creative individuals’ egos and threatens the power structures of established business models— it particularly disturbs the traditional power balance between a company and its consumers.

Interacting with visual information during synthesis phase helps bring alignment between co-creators

It takes time for an organization to fully acclimate to and embrace co-creation. However, the tremendous successes of Wikipedia and YouTube are strong evidence that those organizations who dare to embrace their customers as co-creators will have longer and stronger relationships them. Employees and trade partners will also have a more purposeful experience of innovating.

At a recent co-creation workshop at Wayne State University in Detroit, a participant from the automotive industry asked me, “Who should evangelize the co-creation process within an organization, to ensure both buy-in from key stakeholders and its success?” My response was,

“A person who believes in it, a person who is willing to stand up for it, and has the political acumen and persistence to keep persuading people”.