How to co-create with your customers
“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that's not my approach. People don't know what they want until you show it to them. Our job is to figure out what they're going to want before they do.” So, famously, said Steve Jobs.
One interpretation of Job’s statement is that Apple have never used market research or customer insights to develop or test their products. But in reality, although Apple has a strongly held vision about the products and services it delivers, it is also more deeply attuned to customer needs than any organisation you can think of.
So how should you develop a clear understanding of customer needs and embed that in your product development process? Simply starting by asking customers what they want is unlikely to elicit useful responses. At best, this might define improvements to your own products and provide comparison with competitor’s ones. Testing solutions at later stages, once they are sufficiently well-developed risks time-consuming “loops” in the process and limits responses to only the concepts put in front of customers at that stage.
What’s needed is meaningful engagement with target customers at the early stages of idea generation and concept development. In the work that we do with our clients, that engagement takes two forms. The first is Insight; where we identify relevant users and user groups and seek to ‘walk in their shoes’ to understand their lives and what’s important to them in relation.
Uncovering insights requires careful planning and skill. Depending on the user type, it may require a choice, or a mixture, of observational study, one-to-one interviews or group discussions. The result of this work is a range of opportunity areas and hypotheses that we can creatively explore and test.
The second is what we call Design Co-Creation. This involves inviting end users to participate in the creative process, alongside designers, at its raw, formative stage (as we do in our collaboration with client teams too). We find that people are incredibly responsive when to being given the opportunity to contribute at this stage in the process.
Compared with presenting more finished visuals or prototypes, which tends to produce more closed, yes/no responses, sharing rough sketches, or “building blocks” of an idea stimulates a much more open, creative response. Users enjoy the opportunity to contribute and feel they have ‘permission to play’. On the flip side, the stimulus that users inject into the creative process can prove inspirational to our design team in helping to generate new, as well as more user-centred, ideas.
However, it’s unrealistic to expect end users to design the product for you, so it’s not a matter of putting a pencil in a user’s hand and saying “go”. It’s more about creating the conditions to allow users to guide the designer’s hands and respond to ideas as they take shape. For Design Co-Creation exercises to succeed, a number of key aspects should be considered.
With co-creation sessions typically involving only a small number of users, it’s important that participants are chosen carefully. We spend a good deal of time ensuring that participants represent an appropriate mix of end customers and user groups, but also that they will respond to the creative process. It’s also useful to think about including all stakeholders in the area you are exploring. For example, in design co-creation for a medical device, participants could include patients and healthcare professionals, but also others such as carers.
Staying close to end users and customers makes sense for any product development. With more specialist product areas, it can be harder to recruit participants, but, arguably, the need for active user input to the design process is greater. For more everyday consumer products, it’s more likely that key insights will already be established, but that doesn’t negate the value of co-creation and the injection of new thinking that it can bring.
Engaging with users over more than one session can be useful in building rapport, familiarity with the process and allowing ideas to mature and build. Convening co-creation sessions in pairs or small groups of end users can increase interactivity although sessions with individual participants are more appropriate for personal and intimate subjects. Running sessions remotely, as we’ve been forced to do this year, works too. Whilst some of the interpersonal dynamic is lost, it allows us to reach more geographically diverse people and having users respond from their own environments can provide useful context and creative stimuli.
The KD team use a range of creative methods to engage with users during co-creation. This can include simple card sort exercises, where users may be asked to select, cluster or prioritise statements or potential features, to more involved solution-building exercises.
At KD, we are deeply committed to a user-centric approach to design, so co-creation is a natural tool for us to use. It’s also been increasingly adopted by some major players, such as Lego, IKEA, BMW and Hitachi as a key part of their innovation strategy. By taking a more open approach and ‘democratising’ the process, businesses have seen beneficial effects both in terms of results, but also the engagement and motivation of their teams.
Talk to us about how we can help make Design Co-Creation work for you.