What Is Co-Design? We Demystify It

What Is Co-Design? We Demystify It

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them” – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs didn’t always get it right. While the iPhone showed that the ideas of a single visionary can be revolutionary, most of the time it’s counterproductive – even dangerous – to assume that as a service provider, you know better than your customers.

Co-design is the antithesis of the paternalistic, board-room-knows-best approach to service design. Part brainstorm, part market research, part evidence gathering session, it’s a method of placing the user at the centre of the development of how a service is delivered.

How is this done? Businesses bring customers into the boardroom – not metaphorically, but literally. Co-designing assumes the customer is the expert, while the decision making and project delivery apparatus of the business are facilitators, there to extract and action the customer’s insights. 

Customer-centricity is a well-worn buzzword, but co-design makes it actionable. Here’s how.

How Does It Work?

  1. First, some customers will need to be recruited. A fairly broad cross-section is usually best – what that will look like will, of course, very much depend on the business’s product.
  1. With a group of participants chosen, the first step is to have participants self-reflect. This is to gather the initial insights which will inform the co-design session. In order to best discover participants’ impressions of the service, a range of techniques can be employed. Participants might be asked to keep a diary of their use of the product, or complete a daily or weekly survey.
  1. With self-reflection complete and the data gathered, it’s time to invite participants on-site – for a session that usually lasts 1.5 to 2 hours.
  1. The session is often split into two halves. The first might be an extension of the self-reflection exercises set prior to the session, and focuses on interviewing participants on their current experiences.
  1. With that data gathered, part two focuses on the co-designing itself. A mix of the company team members and gathered customers participate in a range of exercises – these will very likely be physical, tangible, and creativity focused. If it’s not fun, you won’t get the best out of your participants.

Here’s an example – say our co-designing firm is looking to understand its key customer groups better. We might invite our customers in, and have them craft Facebook or Instagram profiles for imaginary customer archetypes – cutting images out of magazines to create visual personas with glue and craft paper. It’s fun and interesting for participants, but it also provides crucial insights to us as a brand. The key with co-design exercises is to keep them open-ended, but give participants enough constraints that they aren’t overwhelmed.

  1. Once participants have completed the exercise, it’s key to capture the insights and debrief everyone. This final step lets them know what they’ve helped you understand with the exercise – and ensures that no learning from the session is lost, by capturing it when its still fresh in participants and researchers’ minds.

Why Co-Design Is Needed

You might be thinking that this sounds like a lot of effort. Why go through the steps necessary to run a co-design session, when you already gather insights from your customers via regular feedback forms and surveys? 

Surveys can be helpful – they’re often a key component of the self-reflection stage – but as a fire-and-forget method that focuses only on gathering data, they can’t effect business change in the same way as co-design. We’ll leave you with three reasons why:

  • Co-design provides the crucial, actionable evidence that businesses need to make big decisions. The executives or consultants who lead change within a business often feel that they ‘should have all the answers’. In reality, they probably don’t. But their customers do, and co-design is a much more powerful method of extracting them than surveying.
  • Teams within a business are often siloed. What one might see as an issue, another might see as an essential part of the service. Talking to the people actually using the service can bring clarity to these internal disagreements, and bring teams together to work cohesively on a problem.
  • As companies scale, executives can naturally lose touch with customers, who find themselves buried further and further behind layers of customer service and account management. Co-design reconnects the people designing the product with those using it, cutting through the bureaucracy and making customers happier.


Ready to start your own co-design session? Talk to us