Meaning Maker


Let the users co-design the system

April 07, 2018

This 2-minute video by Dr. Amy Chan et al. explains co-design using an illustrated example - what co-design is, why it is important and how to use co-design in the research projects that you do.

Here at Just Ask Users, we want to include you in a co-design initiative. We want to "let the users design our system". In my last blog post, I showed you the story of a 6-year-old boy who co-designed an important product component that could possibly save his life. Not all design situations are as dramatic as that one but I think you've seen that co-designing with the real users of a product can yield good results because they are the experts for the context and the job to be done.

Today, I'd like to tell you about our first steps to frame the initiative and give it the minimally necessary guidance to get started. As soon as a small group has started to work on that initiative, we'll let you and the group decide how you all want to continue.

Kicking off the innovation

Otto Scharmer, an action researcher at MIT who co-creates innovations in learning and leadership, wrote a central book about innovation, called "Theory U: Learning from the Future as It Emerges". 1

In that book, Scharmer describes an innovation process in five movements that inspired me so much that I must mention them here. The five movements are called

listen to others and to what life calls you to do
go to the places of most potential and listen with your mind and heart wide open
retreat and reflect, allow the inner knowing to emerge
prototype a microcosm of the new in order to explore the future by doing
grow innovation ecosystems by seeing and acting from the emerging whole

Listening to life and the players in the field

You will have guessed it: Of course, we'll start with co-initiating. I listened to what "life calls me to do" (Scharmer) and founded this start-up because in my previous role as a coach for product development I have seen that product teams struggle to collect and make sense of the feedback from real users.

Then, I listened to and dialogued with interesting players in the field and got the first glimpse of what their needs are and where the underserved needs may be.

Last week, I had a Slack chat with UX practitioners. In a small group of five smart people, I got more, helpful tips on what will probably work in co-design. My thanks go to Anneli Olsen, Alex Iselin, Dave Malouf, Andy Parker, and Vitorio Miliano.

Anneli wrote about her experience with remote design studio-sessions:

Anneli Olsen
Anneli Olsen
UX consultant
Crisp AB
Stockholm, Sweden

I did a remote design studio-session with developers in India. What I found worked best was everyone in front of a computer and webcam each using Skype (I think it was) because then you could clearly see the facial expressions of everyone else, hear them clearly, easier take turn in talking and not discussions between team members in the same location was held which excluded people in other locations.

Design studio with a moderator (me in this case) who kept track of time worked surprisingly well. People held up their drawings in front of their webcams so the others clearly could see them for the feedback part and we came to a very good shared understanding of the problem we were trying to solve as well as suggestions for solutions.

Alex added more tools to the mix:

Alex Iselin
Alex Iselin
Human-Centered Design Consultant
Better With Age
Boulder, CO

I like Anneli Olsen’s approach. I've also used shared Google Drawings while on video calls as a lightweight way for people to sketch, collaborate, and explain their ideas. I've worked in groups with webcams to show everyone's whiteboards, but this can be tough depending on whiteboard size, glare, where the webcam is, etc.

Dave pointed out the importance of structure:

David Malouf
David Malouf
Design Coach, Researcher
Dave Malouf Design
Bayville, Long Island, NY

What's interesting in Matthias Bohlen's description is that he's planning on an asynchronous co-design model.

I think you are thinking about it well enough. The thing that I would add beyond toolkit, is frameworks for using the tools themselves.

Don't expect stakeholders and users to be able to frame structure and workflow themselves. As noble as a self-organizing system is, from a research point of view, you need structure to make sure your results are meaningful within the time constraints you have.

Andy warned me with a similar thought:

Andy Parker
Andy Parker
Digital Transformation UX Consultant
We are AFK
Brighton, England

Without good structure this will become either a dustbowl or noise ... have you asked the people you want to work with what they would prefer to use?

Vitorio pointed me to another method that's possibly suitable for co-design:

Vitorio Miliano
Vitorio Miliano
UX research, design, facilitation, strategy
The Advisory Board Company
Austin, TX

We’ve discussed async co-design where I work but I don’t think anyone’s actually done. We were planning on using the modified-delphi model, which has been applied to card sorting, to other iterative activities like studio sketching.

That's exciting, isn't it? People are so open to giving you their advice, you just have to ask! That inspired me to go on.

Assembling a small group

Now, after listening, it is time for the third step in co-initiating: Co-initiate a diverse core group that inspires a common intention.

I'd like to find you, a small number of people who come from diverse backgrounds in UX research: Researchers themselves, research leads, designers, engineers/developers, practically all members of product teams who strive to get their product really well received by the users.

Going through a cycle of innovation

With such a small core group, I'd like to go through one initial iteration of co-sensing, co-design, and co-creating, to see how it works even when every group member stays at the desk and participates remotely (online, video & audio only):

Getting to know each other, collecting goals and objectives, building the common future intention
Question finding
Finding out which research questions we need to have answers for in order to enhance the design of our research tool "Meaning Maker"
Deep dives
Each member of the small group should contribute stories about how their user research works and collect them in a Wiki web for all other group members to see. We want to find out which problems need to be solved so that you get your research job(s) done.
Design studio
With as simple prototypes as possible (e.g. drawings on paper), we pitch solutions for the problems that we identified before. The members of the core group collectively critique the designs. We can find opportunities for improvement so that the solutions help our persona to get the job done better. The designs are kept in a Wiki web as an idea repository.
Straw-man concept
In our product development team here at Just Ask Users, we'll synthesize everything and come up with an initial, complete idea for it. This means creating a first draft that roughly reaches the persona's objective with a sense of completeness at a coarse-grained level of detail.
Feedback and development
That straw-man concept is fed back to you (the core group), and the group starts iterating with us in order to come up with the final working release, shifting from pure design to the actual product iteration after iteration, and going down to the various details. We'll keep a good rhythm and will learn from you, the experts for your context and your jobs to be done.
Review / retrospective
One cycle through all this should take less than six weeks. At the end of the cycle, one new feature should be fully functional and live in our product. The core group can see and test it and give feedback to allow us to improve it during the next cycle.
Rinse and repeat
According to the feedback that we get from you, we'll adapt the process when necessary and start the next innovation cycle afterward.

Join us now!

If you're doing UX research as part of your daily work, we'd like to ask you to participate in the design of our product. Please sign up using the form below, and we'll put you in touch with a small group of fellow UX researchers from around the world. We'll have an exciting time together while designing the perfect tool for your UX research work.

I'll explain more about the place, time, methods and tools that we will use to collaborate on the design so that will know what it means to be a co-designer for Meaning Maker.

Please sign up with this form

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What we're reading...

  1. Scharmer, C. Otto. Theory U: Learning from the Future as It Emerges (Kindle Locations 5976-5985). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition. ↩︎

About us

Our goal is to help companies improve their products.

We give you a tool that shortens the way from research to design decision: Collect evidence about your users’ behavior, make observations about it, mark the observations with tags and let the machine help your team discover recurring patterns. Grasp insights easily because you clearly see what bothers your users and what delights them.

We make it simple for product developers to get to testable new ideas, concepts, and products for their target market so that they can avoid dead ends and keep building products that their customers want.

Our tool helps to make UX findings transparent. The clarity, transparency, and focus allow teams to collaborate with less friction and produce great results.

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