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Co-Design in Innovation

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With the increased complexity of products, services and the experience economy, corporations have shifted from product-thinking to systems-thinking and while designers have traditionally been viewed as secluded geniuses, successful firms now rely on comprehensive design. Using cross-disciplinary and multicultural teams, collaborating and creating value with all stakeholders is key. Could opening up the design process for users to co-design offerings be a way to quickly and more predictably create value?

The core of any design strategy is profitability, aligning the firms' capabilities with user needs to create and capture value and, for the past decade, incremental innovation and user-centered design has been a successful approach. Observing, interviewing, shadowing and living as users have helped identify existing needs, clarify needs and realize new needs. However, user-centered design falls short when firms introduce breakthrough innovations by improving, importing or developing new technology. As Henry Ford once said: "If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse."

Co-design from business to product design solutions is seen as a potential new avenue for breakthrough innovation in design. Co-design is when firms and non-design users jointly design offerings. Examples range from surgical tools and sport equipment to Lego elements and software.

Inviting expert users and normal users to contribute their ideas has been used in design for decades; however, inviting users and other stakeholders to participate in the design synthesis process continues to be meet with some resistance from designers. Studies show that designers fundamentally believe that design and decision-making by committee caters to the lowest common denominator. In the process, concepts are watered down to a bland solution and make no one really happy. The Ford Edsel, named after Henry Ford's son, is an often mentioned and classic example of excessive user input.

In the U.S., designers compete fiercely with each other to have their design concepts selected for further development and commercialization. Over the past two decades, while contributing on more than 130 design projects in five different design groups, I have yet to see users provide meaningful contributions in the synthesis of concepts. User-centered design and multidisciplinary brainstorming sessions have often provided excellent insights and ideas for concepts, however, the synthesis of cohesive concepts has always been the result of a single designer's focused effort.

Designers' perception of users' inability to co-design concepts may be an ingrained, preconceived notion; however, even when users could add value, designers believe it would not be cost effective to include them. Competition between design firms is fierce and proposals are structured to reduce execution risk with budgets trimmed to the essentials, leaving slim profit margins. The real money to be made in design consulting is in work change orders, when the clients change their assumptions, provisions and/or deliverables. This apparent conflict of interest causes a perverse incentive system and is but one of the many hurdles for the idea of co-design.

Co-design is one of the obvious competitive capabilities, however, to include it in the design process, the culture, architecture and procedures of design organizations will need to undergo major paradigm shifts in their design thinking.

Design is now just too vital a function for aligning internal capabilities with user needs and organizations will need to own and strategically manage the complete design process. If they can manage this shift in thinking, the days of treating design as a tactical resource to be farmed out to the lowest bidder will soon be at an end.