Co-creating user experiences through users’ engagement and empowerment

cocreation & UX © P. Bertini

cocreation & UX

In the past few years, we have assisted to a sort of divorce between users and organisations: technology has bought in a wide range of new behaviours and opportunities that companies are not always able to follow or predict. Most innovative projects fail because it’s difficult to fully understand what’s in the users’ heads (Leadbeater 2008) and the big changes society is facing, with a shift from products to experiences makes traditional UX approaches difficult, time-consuming and less effective.

To reduce complexity and make the overall internal and external process simpler and leaner, UX today can take advantage of collaborative approaches that involve and engages stakeholders, users, and designers in a creative and participative activity, namely co-creation.

The classical approach in Used Centred Design (UCD) involving a user researcher analysing the context of use and users’ needs has become a long process requiring a number of internal approvals and steps that add to the already long data collection phase, more layers to deal with.

Moreover, the traditional approach of a researcher acting as a man in the middle between the user, the designer, and the Client ends up adding a level of complexity to the whole process: the researcher acts as the interpreter of everyone’s needs and is expected to provide answers based on the interpretation of the data they have gathered from all parts involved. But the key issue is that interpretation is subjective, therefore subject to natural biases.

A way to reduce subjectivity, engage stakeholders, and empower users is co-creation.

Co-creation is a social, collaborative and creative process to generate innovation, through the dialogue and participation and empowerment of all actors involved: users, designers, and stakeholders.

UCD classic approach

When it comes to UCD, the initial phase leading to the definition of user requirements is generally a time consuming process that involves a range of different approaches:

  • Diary studies: they require users to keep a diary of their habits related to the topic at hand for few weeks.

  • Ethnographic research requires researchers to observe users in their settings and collect insights about what may users need and expectations.

  • Surveys and polls collect a large number of data, whose reliability and validity are often questionable due to the limited options they are forced to choose from. Moreover, data collected are factual and lack explanation and details.

  • Focus groups suffer mainly from the power and personality games happening in the group dynamics, where dominant personalities tend to provide a direction.

  • Interviews have the natural bias of relying on the assumed reciprocal expectations and be lead by the ideal image the participants want to provide the to the interviewee.

All these methods then rely on researcher’s ability to interpret the data and translate them into requirements and recommendations, that designer and developers are called to translate into products, services, experiences, and value.

HCI process © P. Bertini

HCI process © P. Bertini

The layer added by the researcher presents few weaknesses:

Qualitative research has the natural bias of being subjective: data collected are translated into information through the lenses of the researcher.


The designers are given a document, which simply provides instructions, with limited, if any, details about the reasons why, which can lead to misunderstanding and confusion.

Moreover, such traditional approaches can provide insights into people’s attitude towards brands or products, but the results are limited to the present time, to what users think here and now. To generate knowledge about future intentions a different approach is needed (Ind & Al. 2012). To deliver meaningful experiences, organisations need to use people’s experience as a starting point (Ramaswamy & Gouillard 2010a) and they need to engage with users and reduce the distances, by talking with them, empowering and actively involve them.

What about co-creation?

The huge cultural evolution of the past 20 years lead by technology and connectivity, has turned markets into conversations as predicted by the 95 theses of the Cluetrain Manifesto. These conversation also lead to a deep change and democratisation of value creation (Ramaswamy & Gouillard 2010a): because of the increasing shift of value from products to experiences, the product centric approach is replaced by a costumer experience approach, where users can become partners of the organisation. This change of perspective, changes the markets and processes, engaging users who are not seen anymore as preys, but are an active part of the innovation process (Prahalad & Ramaswamy 2004).

For this reason, the traditional focus on needs is obsolete, innovation requires an understanding of people wants and desires (Ind & Al. 2012).

Bruce Nussbaum (2013) demonstrated that asking people about their dreams, they will come up with an answer that reveals what’s truly meaningful and valuable to them. “People are more complicated than a list of needs […] None needs an iPhone. […] Mining for knowledge […] involves an understanding of what people find meaningful” (Nussbaum 2013 :77).

For this reason, a change in the organisations’ approach to the concept and development of new services can be a winning strategy leading to a better understand of what users want and what is valuable both for the organisation and for the users.

In the past few years, lot of confusion was made between crowdsourcing, open innovation, mass collaboration, User generated content, and co-production.

Co-creation is a social, iterative, interactive, collaborative, and creative process to generate innovation, through the dialogue and participation of all actors to construct value and new win-win opportunities and experiences.

The key ingredients of co-creation are missing in most of these new innovation driven approaches.

  • Co-production is based on the Ikea-effect and it involves the customers in the final steps of the production process, i.e. assembling furniture, or self check out at the supermarkets. It lacks the social, iterative, creative, collaborative and iterative aspects.

  • Open Innovations is “the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation (Chesbrough 2011).

  • Crowdsourcing are initiatives where organisations open a collaborative platform where customers generate ideas for the organisation, but not with it, with no real collaboration from the organisations, which simply collects inputs and evaluates them according to their internal metrics.

  • Mass-collaboration can be exemplified by Wikipedia, where a large number of people contribute to, share knowledge with no real interaction.

  • UGC is an individual creative action, lacking the interaction and constructive aspects of co-creation.

Although all these activities are innovation driven and all engage customers, there is no real conversation, and these are rather a one-direction flow of ideas, from users to organisations.

Co-creation is not about getting ideas from the users, or understanding the rational thoughts behind their behaviours, co-creation is about users’ empowered engagement and creativity to generate insights and latent opportunities (Ind & Al. 2012, Ramaswamy & Gouillard 2010b).

Co-creation is a social and participative experience where all key stakeholders are engaged in a constructive activity to better understand reciprocal points of view and collaboratively create concepts that are valuable for all parts involved – the organisation, the users, the developers.

The key difference between co-creation and traditional UX testing lays in users’ engagement and empowerment: if users are asked just to test or evaluate a product, there’s no real engagement or empowerment, as participants do not feel really involved or able to have an impact and influence decisions. Users’ empowerment is the key to a successful co-creation initiative.

How does it work in practice?

Co-creation can be adopted fully, as an iterative cycle during the whole project, from concept to prototype testing and delivery, or it can be blended with traditional approaches. How co-creation is used depends by many factors, including the nature of the project and its stage.

Innovative projects should consider the whole approach to be able to focus on what is really valuable for the customers and all parts involved and to understand the future behaviours. To improve existing project or to adjust prototypes, a blended approach can help refining the customer experience.

An example of co-creation comes from a GovJam, where citizens, service designers, civil servants, local politicians took part to a creative experience to co-create new services for the local councils. The workshop adopted a facilitation technique called Lego Serious Play, which involves participants in a creative, playful and focused activity aiming at literally constructing the values shared by all participants.

In a day-long workshop participants all agreed on what are the key values and experiences they would expect from the local government and together they build the concept, so that at the end of the day the local civil servants had a better idea of what citizen expect and how could they implement those inputs.

Who should co-create?

One of the key differences between mass and crowd collaboration experiences, is the number of people involved: collaboration and constructive interaction can happen only in smaller groups, where people can negotiate meaning and feel empowered, because a mass contribution is useless unless it creates something ordered and meaningful.

As Herstatt and Von Hippel (1992) demonstrated well, lead users – those who have a deeper knowledge and experience with the existing product or service – can provide valuable feedbacks to improve products and services based on their experience.

Therefore, a co-creation workshop should involve a balanced mix of lead users, users, designers, the client, and a facilitator to make the experience productive and time effective.

What are the benefits?

A paradigm shift in the UX approach, that considers involving all actors involved in the design and delivery of the product or service, can hugely improve the final result.

The traditional approach in User requirement and the focus on user testing can become more agile and lean by changing approach and employing co-creation as a practice. Co-creation does not require paperwork and the traditional user requirements formalisation is left behind, focusing on results, putting the Agile Manifesto into practice:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

The focus on interactions, conversations, collaboration, response to change and functionalities and practice are the key factors of co-creation and the basis of any Agile experience.

The key benefits can be summarised as follows:

  1. Time: co-creation workshops, that can be single or iterative, depending on the nature of the project, save time to the client organisation, to the researchers, designers and all parts involved who can collect better insights and get to an agreement quicker and more efficiently.

  2. Costs: a reduction of time spent in user requirements to generate concepts that are meaningful and valuable to all parts involved, reduces project costs.

  3. Results: by involving all parts involved in the new project in a workshop, they can share their views, learn about mutual expectation, desires and values and construct together the win-win, a solution that is feasible and includes the features desired by users and creates value both to them and to the organisation.

To start your new approach to UX companies need to overcome the distinction of experts and users and understand the value of participation and diversity, because groups with diverse skills and outlooks generate smarter solution that heterogeneous group of experts with shared outlooks (Leadbeater 2008). Because today the main barrier is accepting that innovation can come from others than internal experts (Ind & Al. 2012): if companies adopt a humble approach and engage users, not only they will be able to have a positive impact on the experience they deliver, but get an invaluable understanding of what happens out there, in the real world, with the services and products that they deliver, in a more genuine and authentic way thanks to the high level of emotional engagement enhanced by creativity and users’ empowerment.

Here’s a presentation I gave based on this article:

Essential Bibliography


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