One of the most enjoyable and fulfilling things about helping Forrester clients become customer-obsessed is leading an experience co-creation workshop.  Forrester defines co-creation as the active participation of employees, customers, and stakeholders working together to design new experiences. It’s a technique that helps companies define the right experience for their customers and provides critical information that supports human-centered design.

A typical co-creation session puts Forrester consultants, our clients, and our clients’ customers in a room for a whole day. Together we work through a set of creative exercises designed to expose customer needs, perceptions, and expectations for an ideal experience. Sometimes these sessions are targeted at getting high-level, sentiment-based feedback, such as: What do our customers want from this experience? What does our current state experience look like compared to the ideal? Other times, our clients want more concrete solutions or recommendations such as:  What new experience should we offer? What features should go into our new mobile app? To see it in action, check out this video summary, produced by Western Union, showcasing a workshop we hosted together last year to co-create a new mobile experience.

While co-creation can provide direction on customer expectations and feedback on specific designs, we’ve learned that teams run into trouble when they try to do both of these things in the same session. Why? Because exploratory research and prototyping are two different activities that happen at distinct stages of a user-centered design process. Let’s examine the user-centered design process illustrated below:


In the early stages of a design process, the focus is on understanding customer needs. At this point, research should be structured to help you better understand the problem you need to solve. A well-crafted co-creation session can elicit customer wants and needs, which helps pinpoint the real problem that designers should be solving for in the early stage of the design process.  Once they have converged and defined the real problem, then designers can determine how to solve the problem through ideation and prototyping. During these later stages, co-creation can help design teams get specific feedback on designs that can help them re-shape their solutions to the key customer problem uncovered in their initial set of research.  

In Forrester’s work, we see many companies rush to design, ideating before they know what customers need.  Not only is this approach speculative, it can be down-right wasteful. When companies split their focus on redefining the problem and trying to co-create a solution, they run the risk of finding out that their proposed solution they want feedback on doesn’t fit with customer needs. Consider the following example:

Imagine an insurance company wants to co-create a portal that would allow customers to check the status of a claim. They host a co-creation session that starts with a discussion about needs and ends with an exercise to prototype the portal. The discussion exposes that customers don’t want a portal; they simply want to know the status of their claim. Some want email, others SMS, but everyone agrees that the ideal experience is a streamlined process where the timeline is truncated and updates are unnecessary.

In the above case, worrying about designing the solution (portal) is premature, as a clearer understanding of the problem (needing to feel informed) obviates the proposed solution that customers don’t want.  

Companies can overcome the temptation to “kitchen sink” a co-creation workshop by thinking about the design process as a whole and using co-creation as a technique at specific points to assist with, rather than replace or short-cut, a rigorous design process. A more effective path for the company above would be to validate customer needs through research and co-creation as an initial part of the discovery process. Once designers are confident that they understand the problem and plausible solutions, then they can host co-creation sessions to get feedback on specific solutions, designs, and artifacts they built on a solid foundation of customer understanding.

With that in mind, I recommend you choose to focus your co-creation efforts on either researching OR prototyping and testing an idea that you’ve already vetted with customer research.

Want to learn more about customer understanding and experience design? Check out my colleagues’ related research:

Design Methods In The Age Of The Customer, July 2015

How To Modernize User Experience, March 2015