Co-Design Success: The Whats, Whys and How of Making It Work

Paul Boag

Co-Design involves the user and other stakeholders in the design process. But how does that work in practice, and why is that even a good idea?

Co-Design has been growing in popularity over recent years as organisations recognise that designers cannot produce the user interface in isolation.

However, for many designers, this can feel like a worrying concept — one that could lead to “design by committee” and a loss of control over the design process.

In this post, I lay out the case for co-design and give some practical examples of how it works without undermining the role of the designer.

We begin by defining what I mean by co-design, often also referred to as participatory design.

Co-Design Defined

Wikipedia defines participatory design as:

Participatory design (originally co-operative design, now often co-design) is an approach to design attempting to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g. employees, partners, customers, citizens, end-users) in the design process to help ensure the result meets their needs and is usable.

The keyword there is “involve”. What does involve, mean? Is the designer allowing stakeholders to make design decisions or is it something else?

Illustration of a committee discussing design.
To designers, co-design can sound like code for “design by committee.”

For me, co-design is not about the designer giving up control of the design process. Instead, it is about providing the designer with additional information that they can use to shape their designs. We achieve that by involving those that the design has to ultimately please.

It would be nice to say that means only involving the user in the design process. However, in the real world, it probably means also including the client and other influential stakeholders too.

Admittedly the idea of allowing the client or any stakeholders to be involved in design sounds like a recipe for disaster. However, if run properly, co-design can provide significant benefits.

Why You Should Be Embracing Co-Design

The benefits of co-design are far-reaching. Without a doubt, they help create better products that both support users as well as meet business needs.

However, they are also beneficial for the project team too and in particular the designer.

A lot of project stall when it comes to discussions over design. Everybody has an opinion about design, and everybody wants their say. You can try your best to keep stakeholders out of the process, but it rarely succeeds.

Co-design creates an environment where stakeholders are involved in a controlled way. It makes them feel consulted but leaves the designer to make the ultimate decisions.

That results in faster agreement over design direction and greater buy-in from stakeholders. Stakeholders are less likely to reject a design they were involved in creating. They are also more likely to defend that design to other colleagues.

All of this results in more momentum for the design and project as a whole. In short, co-design reduces debates over design.

So, how does this work in practice? How do you involve stakeholders without losing control of the design?

Some Example of Co-Design in Action

There are many approaches to co-design. Far more than I can cover here. However, let me share with you three exercises I regularly run with my clients. Hopefully, they will give you a taste.

The Waiting Room Exercise

The waiting room co-design exercise is designed to define a visual language for a project, without allowing stakeholders to start commenting on the design of the web site or app.

Participants are asked to imagine the reception room that people visiting their company would wait in. They are asked to imagine what would be on the walls, what the furniture would be and even what music would be playing.

Image of the kind of waiting area users often describe in this co-design exercise.
By asking stakeholders to describe a reception area they will start to use adjectives that can be adopted in the design of your site.

As participants describe their perfect room, they will start using adjectives such as “minimalistic”, “friendly” or “cosy”. The designer can then take these words and use them as inspiration for the direction of the design they are being asked to create.

However, if you want, you can take those words and use them as the basis for the second exercise I often run – collaborative moodboarding.

Collaborative Moodboarding

One of the problems with a design is that each stakeholder will have a mental image of how it should look. The problem is that when the designer’s vision doesn’t match theirs, they often react badly.

To avoid this problem, we need to break the stakeholder’s image by showing them that many different approaches are equally valid.

We can do this by taking our words from the waiting room exercise and asking participants to create a moodboard for each word.

Each moodboard will consist of:

  • Fonts people select from Google Fonts.
  • Images grabbed from Google Images.
  • Colours from a tool like Adobe Color.
  • Stylistic elements from other websites.
An example of a co-design moodboard.
Involving stakeholders in moodboard creation encourages them to explore alternative approaches to a design direction.

By the end of the exercise, you will have a selection of very different moodboards demonstrating to stakeholders how many approaches could be adopted.

It then falls to the designer to pick and choose what they want from these various approaches. The group do not ‘pick one’ from the selection to be developed further. That is the designer’s decision.

Of course, this will only help define aesthetics. What about content and visual hierarchy? For that, I use the six-up exercise.

Six Up Wireframes

The six-up exercise is not dissimilar to Crazy Eights. However, where crazy eights move towards a final design, the six-up activity is designed to demonstrate that many different approaches could be adopted. It does not settle on a single version.

Participants are asked to take a sheet of paper, fold it in half and then in thirds. That leaves you with six boxes that they can draw in.

The six up exercise doesn’t create detailed wireframes but it is great for exploring alternative approaches.

Ask participants to draw one wireframe design in each box for the page you are focusing on (e.g. the site’s homepage). Each drawing has to take a different approach to the page.

You will find that participants have no trouble drawing one or two approaches. But they will struggle to create six, and you may have to give them suggestions. For example, suggest they make a version explicitly aimed at their primary audience or one focusing on their top-selling product.

As with collaborative moodboarding, it will show the participants that there are lots of potential ways of designing the site. It helps them move beyond the one they happen to have in their head. It also gives the designer lots of material that they can draw upon when creating the final design.

Broader Participation

The above exercises are all very design-focused. However, there are also numerous exercises you can do that improve the design in a broader sense. Here are a few I use from time to time:

  • Love Letters / Dear John Letters. Instead of asking people to list the positive and negative characteristics of your offering, get them to express it either as a love letter (for the positive) or a Dear John letter (for the negative).
  • Empathy Mapping. Get participants to define their audience better by looking at their pain points, questions, tasks, feelings and influencing factors.
  • Customer Journey Mapping. Explore the user’s entire journey with participants, helping them better understand where the design fits into the broader picture.
  • Famous Person Exercise. Ask participants to describe a famous person that represents their company. The person’s characteristics often help inform the look and feel and tone of voice for a site.

Even these are just the tip of the iceberg. For more workshop exercises that you might want to use, I highly recommend checking out the Game Storming website.

More than A Stakeholder Management Technique

I am conscious that this article has given the impression that co-design is primarily about managing stakeholders. Let me be clear; that is not the case.

Co-design can also be a fantastic tool for generating new ideas. After all, it is not only designers who have good ideas. They can come from anywhere.

Then, of course, there are the incredible benefits of doing co-design with end-users. I am always surprised by how wrong my assumptions about user preferences are. I can guarantee that if you involve users, you will end up with a better design.

However, I am also conscious that co-design can be a scary prospect for some designers. That is why I wanted to also emphasise the benefit to you as the designer too. Co-design is a great way to avoid those painful moments when it is your opinion versus that of some senior stakeholders, and for that reason alone, it is worth trying.

Stock Photos from Colorlife/Shutterstock

Stock Photos from Hafiez Razali/Shutterstock