Co-Design Leads to More Equitable Outcomes

Co-design means involving stakeholders and users into a generative process. A collaborative approach to design can help create synergy within an organization and address the ethical standards of inclusivity.

In today’s service-oriented economy, customer experiences play a key role in demonstrating the value of an organization. These experiences have become increasingly complex and dynamic, leaving no space for patchwork solutions. Even the most basic innovation, such as going from paper forms to digital ones, will impact an entire organization and raise fundamental questions about its systems and strategy: What data do we need to capture? How do we encourage users to share it? Where do we store it? What’s the most effective way to visualize it? How will it drive decisions?

At the same time, technological proliferation and the expansion of user bases are forcing service providers to account for a wider range of abilities and needs while simultaneously providing the seamless experiences consumers have come to expect. The coronavirus pandemic has amplified these challenges and made them more time-sensitive, especially in those sectors that directly address consumers’ basic needs, such as healthcare, education, transportation and the public sector in general.

A more inclusive model of design
Developing more comprehensive and inclusive design practices can seem daunting, as it usually entails fundamental shifts in how an organization thinks about responsibility and ownership when it comes to ingrained habits or processes. At the very least, traditional design processes must become more transparent and incorporate members of the organization who may not have engaged with design before. At its most radical, however, this transformation requires much more than increased internal involvement—it requires bringing consumers themselves into the design process.

Through decades of work with clients across industries and markets, frog has developed numerous tools to help organizations achieve such transformation. One of the most reliable is co-design, a framework that has the potential to enhance and accelerate internal design capabilities while generating more effective and inclusive outcomes.

Co-designing for alignment and empathy
The goal of co-design is to incorporate key stakeholders fully and directly into the design process in order to reduce internal friction and build greater empathy with consumers. In our experience co-designing with clients, we have seen that it not only improves their capabilities when it comes to developing new products and services, but also fosters greater organizational transparency, trust and alignment. Just as importantly, it helps them develop a much deeper understanding of their customers’ aspirations, challenges, needs and desires.

Diverse teams arrive at more innovative solutions
When co-designing with clients, we emphasize that the most viable and sustainable innovations are those that align with business objectives. That means the entire organization must be represented in the design process. Of course, not every single individual will participate, but representatives from each division or department should be selected for the co-design group based on their skills and experience. These internal stakeholders will play a critical role in identifying and designing around the capabilities, needs and limitations of the organization.

But the best solutions don’t only address your business—they also address your customers’ needs. Organizations typically define those needs in the initial research phase, but co-design brings the consumer into the subsequent problem-solving process as well. Studies have demonstrated that more diverse groups are capable of more creative and innovative thought, and co-design aims to leverage that relationship. By bringing in the cultural contexts, experiences, personality traits and motivations of a diverse subset of users, we can understand problems in new ways and avoid the pitfalls of traditional business thinking. Exploring multiple pathways from problem to solution helps develop more robust, innovative and scalable concepts while also providing a clearer frame of reference to assess the value proposition of any particular concept.

Co-design in action
To successfully realize the power of inclusive, collaborative design, you need focused and effective facilitation. Organizational and design leaders should provide purpose and structure for the process by using initial research insights to help focus participants on the human experience and pain points of the user.

The facilitators’ first goal is to present research findings in a way that makes them human and relatable by asking questions that put the insights in context: Who provided this feedback? Why did they seek out a given product or service? What barriers did they encounter, and how did that impact their experience? This encourages participants to see themselves in the research, to consider how they would react if faced with the same circumstances, and to consider users’ motivations and needs more seriously. By establishing empathy with the user, the process taps into our natural human impulse to solve problems that directly affect us. This impulse helps create conversation and connection by providing participants an opportunity to contribute their personal experience and expertise to the solution of a common problem.

The facilitators’ next goal is to focus that problem-solving impulse on specific segments of the user journey, sometimes building on half-baked solutions, in order to most effectively harness the group’s creative power. For example, consider a healthcare organization trying to improve its process for booking appointments. Co-design provides patients the opportunity to express their priorities and problems within the existing system, such as affordability and wait times. It also allows providers, caregivers and care coordinators to offer perspectives that put those pain points into context for the business stakeholders—engineers, strategists, marketers and accountants—who will be tasked with designing, building and maintaining any proposed solution. Bringing these diverse cohorts together early in the design process allows them to build upon and refine each other’s ideas, helping the organization develop the best possible solution for both their users and their business.

This example illustrates why bringing consumers into the generative process is so powerful. When internal stakeholders can speak directly to users, their perspectives come to life and spark creativity. Instead of behaving like technical experts analyzing data, they are encouraged to behave like human beings in a position to help other human beings solve real and pressing problems. Pre-existing ideas about what we know or who belongs in the room fade away, replaced with the recognition that we’re all using the resources we have at our disposal to create the best possible outcomes we can. These natural and powerful human dynamics enable co-design groups to anticipate various user needs in advance and reduce internal friction when it comes to creating cross-functional alignment on designs.

Accelerating innovation and equity with co-design
Although the co-design process can seem like a greater initial investment across the organization in terms of planning, coordination and time, it pays dividends on those investments quickly. Engaging users and internal stakeholders at the outset allows the design process to become more streamlined, as concepts are tested and refined before they’ve consumed significant time and resources. By starting with a wider lens and more diverse perspectives, co-design helps accelerate innovation and reduce risk, while simultaneously providing competitive advantages over other firms by getting to the right solutions sooner.

As firms face increasing pressure to address social and ethical considerations in their offerings, co-design provides an unparalleled opportunity for creating deeper engagement and alignment with consumers by demonstrating a commitment to inclusivity and transparency. Instead of merely paying lip service to these ideas through public statements and performative marketing, co-design helps organizations create products and services that address real and diverse needs, improving experiences and outcomes for all.

Francesco Petronelli
Associate Design Director, Service Design
Francesco Petronelli
Francesco Petronelli
Associate Design Director, Service Design

With a background in Service Design, Francesco works at the intersection of user experience and strategy. He believes that every interaction should be designed as part of a larger ecosystem and applies a collaborative approach to find cross-functional alignment through a consumer lens. 

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