Co-Creation Leads To Better Innovation & Results

Written By Liz Hunt

Published April 25, 2022

diagram showing how co-creation overlaps with 'design with' and is a bridge to 'design by'

We’re often asked how we define co-creation and why it’s our preferred approach to innovation. In part, we co-create because it’s more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable. However, the main reason is that it’s way more fun and produces much more inspirational and impressive results.

Below, we share...

  • What the term means to us
  • Why it drives success + impact
  • How to overcome its potential complications
  • Ideas to get you started

From ‘Design For’ To ‘Design With’

Most companies ‘Design For’ the customers they’re trying to engage or support. When they do so, without any information or ideas directly from them, their products and programs usually lack product-market fit.

I’ve been delivering products* and programs* my entire career. I had the opportunity to study user-centered strategies in one of my earliest roles and was immediately hooked. It’s when companies ‘Design With’ the insights and/or participation of their customers. I loved learning about other people and hearing their ideas. I was constantly surprised by the ways consumers and participants used (and reasons they didn't use) the things we were building. There are many wonderful ways companies can ‘Design With’ their customers. Some are easy and free, while others require more effort and investment. It’s impossible to list them all, but some of my favorite examples are ethnographic research, testing via real-world user observation, and timely feedback surveys.

* Products are physical or digital goods and services that an organization sells to its customers, while programs are services an organization provides to its employees.

From ‘Design With’ To Co-Creation

As I progressed in my career, I chose to work for companies that valued user-centered strategies and avidly followed advancements in the field. Success comes from bringing the right users, into the right activities, at the right times, with the right focus. Otherwise, products and programs might still experience product-market fit issues.

When companies collaborate with their customers to a deeper and more meaningful extent, they enter the realm of co-creation. This methodology isn't new, but is a much more powerful way to think about problems, review research, generate ideas, and identify solutions. It requires teams to deepen their relationships with customers and other stakeholders, plus be willing to change their practices and workplace culture whenever necessary. Sometimes, they'll also need to step back and let customers drive. Co-creation is a bespoke process each and every time it's done due to the unique natures of the work at hand and people involved. That said, over the years, I’ve collected a number of techniques, tools, and platforms that can be mixed-and-matched to facilitate most co-creation initiatives. Two favorite examples are offering content for different learning styles and providing a variety of synchronous and asynchronous options for working. I've found that it's critical to accommodate communication and collaboration preferences of the widest possible variety of neurotypical and neurodivergent folks.

From Co-Creation To ‘Design By’

It can be immensely challenging to step away and give other folks the power to produce new solutions on their own. Especially for people like me who have specialized in leading product/program management and enjoy that type of work. But, I discovered that it’s super rewarding. I’ve given myself to ‘Design By’ several times, most notably at a few IDDS and CCB events. I'm always astounded at the ingenuity of the ideas. I always leave thinking about things differently and feeling more inspired. During those experiences, I’ve also learned about a variety of new techniques, tools, platforms, etc. which I’ve fed back into my co-creation work. ‘Design By’ is the best way to be inclusive, equitable, and sustainable. Why? Because the folks who use and are affected by a solution build it themselves to best suit their individual and community needs.

What Co-Creation Means To Us

Co-Creation is a more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable approach to human-centered innovation.

Though similar to the more inclusive forms of ‘Design With’, co-creation is intended to help shift companies towards a more ‘Design By’ mindset. That's why, in the diagram above, we depicted it as both an overlap and a bridge. We believe a co-creative process should be human-centered (not just user-centered). Ideally, it should involve the company plus their customers, communities, and other stakeholders. Solutions should center the experience and knowledge of everyone that’s creating, using, and affected by them. The best solutions are inspired by the breadth of what humanity has to offer, from ancient wisdom to the bleeding edge of innovation.

A co-creative process is facilitated, not led, and is best when everyone remains curious, flexible, open, and considerate. It's welcoming and collaborative. It encourages and empowers everyone to participate in whichever ways they feel most creative and productive. Co-Creation is fueled by iterative cycles of observation, active-listening, idea generation, and reflection. It’s most successful + impactful when everyone respects each other at least as equals (regardless of their relative backgrounds or roles). We invite folks to generously share their knowledge/skills, comfortably admit when they don’t know something, and patiently learn from and teach one another.

As with most things of value, it’s not easy. The point of co-creation is to engage a lot more people. Thus, to do it well, the process often requires more time and/or budget. It also requires folks to be brave and embrace their own discomfort. Whenever necessary or beneficial, we invite folks to have hard conversations, recognize and amend their mistakes, and acknowledge and address their privilege and oppression.

Value Of Co-Creation

There are a myriad of opportunities and benefits from co-creating new products and programs. When done well, with intention and consideration, the ROI can be huge. These include…

  • Clearer understanding of your customers’ needs and goals
  • Clearer understanding of the needs and goals of your communities and other stakeholders
  • Stronger connections between your organization and customers, communities, and other stakeholders
  • Reduced risks and costs for design, development, quality assurance, and marketing
  • Better product-market fit
  • Increased sales and customer retention
  • Increased customer and community engagement
  • Reduced support issues and related expenses
  • Increased brand affinity and brand loyalty
  • Strengthened communication, collaboration, and creativity skills within your team
  • Stronger connections within your team and a more inclusive workplace
  • Greater employee engagement (which in turn improves your organization’s productivity, retention, and financial performance)

Co-Creation can also help us collectively make society more inclusive, equitable, and just. This method of innovation models connection, inclusion, and participation which nurtures healthier cultures. It challenges the hegemonic definitions of leadership as well as the harmful dominant narratives of who is a designer/innovator. It does all this by centering a larger number and variety of folks (many from historically-marginalized groups) in ways that they themselves craft.

Don’t just take our word for it. In 2016, Hitachi asked Longitude Research to look at the future of co-creation across nine sectors (from nonprofit to technology and automotive). They found that an increasing number of companies are already experiencing a range of commercial benefits and delivering greater social impact through co-creation. Specifically… 57% said that co-creation transformed their company's approach to innovation; 52% said that it reduced the cost of developing their offerings; 61% said that it enabled them to produce more successful new offerings; and 54% said that, beyond the bottom line, it helped improve their company's social impact.

Complications Of Co-Creation

This methodology isn’t without its difficulties. Co-creation can be messy and uncomfortable. It frequently takes longer and/or costs more since it’s participatory and iterative. It also requires much more openness, patience, respect, trust, and accountability from everyone involved.

To overcome these potential complications, we recommend you…

  • Know why you’re co-creating on which parts of an initiative, who to include and when, plus how to keep everyone focused and motivated throughout.
  • Compensate everyone fairly for their time and contributions. Take into consideration whatever might be impacted in their work, life, and family as a result of their participation.
  • Prepare for a lot more transparency and accommodation. It’s critical that everyone has the same understanding about and access to milestones, resources, constraints, and latest happenings. Take into consideration differing access to connectivity and levels of computer know-how.
  • Advise your management/leadership chain ahead of time that co-creation frequently goes in surprising new directions and can have unexpected results. Keep them in the loop throughout the process.

How You Can Start Co-Creating

We invite you to co-create! In case you haven't done it before, we'd like to share some ideas to get you started…

  • Take some time to research different styles of co-creation (online and by talking with practitioners inside and outside of your industry).
  • Practice co-creation initially with customers you trust in smaller projects with limited scope and lower risk.
  • Learn as much as you can from every attempt at co-creation (whether it succeeded or failed). Ask for and incorporate feedback. Embrace new ideas. Repeatedly iterate your practices and processes to best suit your group’s unique needs, wants, and goals.
  • Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Even folks like us, with significant experience in co-creation, should be collaborators and facilitators alongside everyone else.