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Creativity-based Research: The Process of Co-Designing with Users

by Catalina Naranjo-Bock
10 min read
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Co-design workshops help designers partner with users to include their perspective in knowledge development, idea generation, and product development.

The practice of co-design allows users to become an active part of the creative development of a product by interacting directly with design and research teams. It is grounded in the belief that all people are creative and that users, as experts of their own experiences, bring different points of view that inform design and innovation direction.

Co-design is a method that can be used in all stages of the design process, but especially in the ideation or concepting phases. Partnering with users ensures their inclusion in knowledge development, idea generation, and concept development on products whose ultimate goal is to best serve these same users.

In this article I will examine the different stages of a co-design research process, as well as the methods and practices that are commonly used in each phase. Furthermore, I’ll look at the new forms of co-designing that have emerged as a result of social technologies.

Stage 1: Self-Reflection Research Methods

A co-design session can yield a variety of data outcomes, from the creation of cognitive maps to mockups of a product or service. Regardless of the goal of the sessions, it is important to prepare participants beforehand by allowing them to think and reflect about the topic to be studied.

The research methods for this initial preparation prompt the participants to reflect on activities that otherwise might be taken for granted in everyday life, and reflect on experiences they normally perceive as routine. Diary studies, journaling, workbooks, and day-in-the life exercises are generally used in this stage.

The results of these initial exercises can serve as inspiration for the actual co-design sessions, kick-starting and guiding the conversation, or helping participants dig deeper into specific areas.

Researches and designers have been experimenting with a variety of web-based and mobile tools that allow participants to reflect on their life experiences in ways that feel less intrusive, and that are faster and more enjoyable. Mobile diary studies, social networks, online forums, proprietary software, and even SMS have all been experimented with to develop user research methods for self-reflection.

When choosing which research methods to use in this phase, it’s important to bear three considerations in mind:

What the research goals and questions are

For example, if the study is about understanding people’s emotional responses to an experience, the research methods can have participants reflect on this by pairing abstract words and images with text descriptions. However, if the study is related to how people use a product and how they would like to use it in the future, a mobile diary study reflecting on specific activities throughout a fixed period of time would be a better choice.

The important thing is that participants are given the opportunity to think about the topic of the study and reflect on it before meeting with the design team for an onsite co-creation workshop.

Who the audience is and what tools they can use

Teenagers and young professionals might be more inclined to use certain kinds of technologies when participating in a research study, which may not be the case with senior participants or children. Therefore, designing research projects with a user-centered approach is important. What tools does the audience have access to? Would they need any help going through the research exercises (e.g. they are children who need parental guidance).

It is also vital to keep in mind the limitations of the research tools people would be using for the study. For example, when doing mobile studies, it is important to keep the instructions and the questions as short and succinct as possible. Typing long paragraphs on a mobile device is uncomfortable for most users, so the questions should be designed acknowledging these limitations.

The stage of the project and the users who are invited to participate

In some cases, the self-reflection research exercises can be shortened or bypassed. This normally occurs when the research is about a specific product or service and the team is dealing with users who have long and expert-level experience and can talk about it without much preparation. These are users who generally deal with the product on a daily or weekly basis and are passionate about finding ways to improve it or expand its potential.

There are other cases when co-designing is performed as a weekly or biweekly process in combination with rapid iterations in an agile development cycle, or simply to develop a continuous relationship with different kinds of users during the initial stages of development. In these cases, an email with three to four detailed questions might suffice in order to get the participants thinking and reflecting.

Stage 2: Running Co-Design Workshops Onsite

Co-design workshops can be conducted with one participant or with a group of participants. Because of the hands-on nature of the sessions, a mixed group of users, designers, and researchers can yield to rich results and aid in the alignment of a user-centered process within the organization. However, it is important that the researcher guides the sessions at all times and instructs team members on how to best participate and interact with user participants, e.g. what types of questions to ask, what kind of language to use, etc.

When working with a large group of participants, it is best to break the group into subgroups of a maximum three members and monitor their work and internal discussions as best as possible. Each subgroup can work on the same theme or variations of it, presenting their work to the rest of the group at the end of the session.

Most co-design workshops have a duration of 1.5-2 hours, although some can be longer if working with expert and highly passionate users. The conversation is generally opened by examining the results from the self–reflection research exercises completed in stage one, and is followed by one or more hands-on exercises.

The materials are usually very visual or tactile and there is a need for a large workspace and a wall or whiteboard.

The Methods

The following are some examples of research methods used in co-design sessions that uncover a variety of insights. The materials and tools used for each workshop should be designed to satisfy the needs of the specific study and therefore they should vary depending on the project.

  • Collages

    Collages are used for discovering emotions, feelings, or wishes. They are abstract by nature and allow people to express themselves through images and words that relate to how they envision current or future experiences.

    The materials needed for collages are generally composed of a maximum of 150 images and words, which are carefully chosen and refined by the development team and printed on sticker sheets. The images and words chosen should be abstract enough to elicit communication without guiding the participants in any way, but might include representative elements such as people or artifacts.

    Study Toolkits

    Example of collage toolkit developed by Liz Sanders

  • Cognitive and context mapping

    This is the process of creating mind maps of abstract concepts, events, processes, routines, experiences, or systems. The materials used here are symbolic elements such as arrows, regular and irregular shapes, and some distinctive icons or words. These tools should help the participants express the flow in a system or process alluding to both negative and positive aspects.

    Sanders and the ID StudioLab at Delft University in the Netherlands has done extensive work using this method. A full description of this method along with examples can be found here.

  • Storyboards

    Storyboards are used to describe a series of events or steps in a journey. They are a good collaborative tool to imagine future or ideal experiences from start to finish.

    Some materials for storyboarding in co-design sessions include drawing supplies and storyboard templates that guide the participant without being prescriptive. Other materials include additional collections of icons, images, and symbols.

    Depending on the stage of the project and the research questions, some storyboards are presented to the participants with some pre-defined elements. For example, the designers might have illustrated some steps already but the participants need to add conversations and text explanations on each slot, or vice versa.


    Example of storyboards from Business Design Tools.

  • Inspiration Cards

    Future scenarios and personas can be co-designed in the form of stories with the use of inspiration cards. These are sets of cards that can be made by the design and research team or purchased as a predefined deck. They contain a variety of images, words and / or complete sentences. The participants construct a story with the cards by positioning them on a large a wall in the order they prefer.

    The cards can be divided by themes, such as people, places, vehicles, animals, etc., and should be big enough to be easy to see from a normal distance when posted on a wall.

    Inspiration Cards

    Example of inspiration cards sets I have used in the past

  • Modeling

    Modeling includes physical mock-ups of tangible products, spaces, or experience journeys. Sometimes, modeling can also be used to co-design group dynamics or deconstruct complex systems.

    Tools for modeling include collections of 3D shapes in a variety of different materials (e.g., Liz Sanders’ velcro modeling kits [1]), construction kits (LEGO, Mecano, etc.) or Play-Doh.

  • Paper protyping and sketching

    When the design team has already produced some initial concepts of the product but there is still plenty of room for exploration, paper prototypes or sketches of wireframes can serve as the main elements for co-design activity.

    These can be printed on large sheets of paper with enough space to draw or comment on. Tracing paper can also be used as an overlay for the participants to draw with the wireframes below as a guide. A whole interface can also be broken down in pieces of paper to let users build their ideal interface out of these initial parts.

    Codesigning software

    Example of co-design sessions in software interface design

  • Games

    Design, brainstorming, and innovation games can all be applied to co-designing in a variety of ways. Explaining each of these techniques is out of the scope of this article, but plenty of information around these methods can be found in books and online articles. Examples include the books “Gamestorming” by David Gray et al. and “Innovation Games” by Luke Hohmann.

The pilot test

A typical co-design workshop has at least two different parts, one where the participant is interviewed about current experiences in order to start the conversation, and one where hands-on co-design exercises take place. The workshops generally involve a collection of materials, instructions for the co-design exercises, and considerable amounts of many people’s time . For these reasons, it is vital to pilot test the design of the sessions.

Pilot testing allows you to examine:

  • The effectiveness of the tools and materials used in the workshop. Are the materials supporting participants’ expression without guiding it in any way? What other materials are needed? Which should be eliminated?
  • The time allocated for each activity. Is it too short or too long? How much time needs to be allocated to the different activities? How to prevent participants’ fatigue?
  • The physical locale for the co-design sessions. Is there enough space and light? Do the participants feel comfortable at all times? Does it have all the supplies needed?
  • Participation of stakeholders. Are the right questions being asked? Is the feedback required from the development team being obtained? What should be added or deleted?
The results

The data obtained from co-design sessions is generally visual and tangible. It can aid in presenting research findings in direct connection with users’ ideas and feelings in more engaging and understandable forms.

It is important to debrief the results of each session with the team that was part of the process or that observed the sessions. The researcher should capture everyone’s ideas on sticky notes and collect them on a board dedicated to each participant.

Once the research cycle is finalized, the qualitative nature of the data allows the results of co-design processes to be analyzed with methods such as affinity diagramming or parallel clustering.

The New Landscape

New forms of co-design have emerged that take advantage of digital technologies to allow hundreds of users to co-create a product or service regardless of their location. Most of these co-design efforts come in the form of contests or collaborative online platforms that encourage users to submit ideas directly to the company and to collaborate with their peers.

Open innovation and crowdsourcing initiatives are open calls to a broad community of people for help with the design of a company’s next product or service, or for ongoing ideas that might be considered for real production.

An example of this is eYeka, an online platform that supports crowdsourcing efforts of large brands in Europe and the U.S. These initiatives are presented as video, animation, and design contests to a large community of creative people including filmmakers, animators, graphic designers, etc.

eYeka page

Final Notes

This article provides a general description of co-designing processes. Although the term “co-design” is now used in user research and design contexts, its foundations are based on the co-creation and participatory design work of Liz Sanders and the Scandinavian approach to collaborative design and research.

I hope the information presented in this article can serve as a guide and inspiration for UX researchers, designers, and stakeholders. The information presented here is not exhaustive, and it should be applied differently to each research project. At the same time, each section of this article can be researched deeper depending on what needs to be discovered.

Additional Reading:
post authorCatalina Naranjo-Bock

Catalina Naranjo-Bock,

Catalina is a hybrid user experience designer and researcher who has collaborated with creative departments in companies across the US, Europe, Canada and Southamerica in the area of user-centered product development. She has also served as adjunct faculty, speaker, and author in different design and research related contexts. Her professional engagements include projects with Intel Corporation, the LEGO Group, Nickelodeon and Yahoo! Inc. 



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