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Co-design is easy: 5 ways you can include client teams in user research projects

Kristy Former Head of Discovery and Design 29th Feb, 2016
Watching a focus group through one way glass

If you work in user research or design for an agency or consultancy, co-design is one of those words you might be hearing more and more from potential clients these days. If you work client-side, you’re probably seeing it pop up in a lot more proposals as a recommendation to incorporate your users in the design of new products and services for them.

Yes, co-design is a buzzword, but it makes sense.

The intent of co-design, sometimes called participatory design or co-operative design, is to involve multiple stakeholders in the design of a new product or service. Most often, the term is associated with user engagement in the form of focus groups or workshops. Sometimes the work done is actually co-designing and sometimes it turns out to be just consultation or validation. Ideally, it involves idea generation and prototyping after the participants are prepped with a bit of context through the discussion of their current experiences.

The groups we don’t always associate with co-design are the client-side teams that contribute to solution development. This includes any teams or individuals who can provide insight that will contribute to a best-fit solution for both the business and the user.

To ensure that business capability and strategy is incorporated into your design, we’ve listed a number a ways you can consider client contribution below. These have been mapped to match 5 different stages of a project (note that I’ve addressed the content to suit external teams, however it is still informative if you work in-house).

1. Business discovery

The first thing we schedule during the project kickoff is a business discovery session with key senior stakeholders who have an investment in the project or who might be able to contribute knowledge and understanding regarding the project or its target users. This is at the very least a meeting and ideally an interactive workshop-style session to ensure that you get everything you need before beginning the project. As a follow up, make sure to ask for participants to send you any previous research or other relevant documentation.

When possible, it is also extremely useful to engage with employees who frequently interact with your target users. This includes call-centre and retail staff and also anyone in sales who speaks with potential users. This group often has fantastic insights into user pain points and opportunities and awareness of how the business might accommodate them.

brainstorming user needs on paper

2. User research

Including clients in the research you do with their users will allow them an added layer of understanding of and empathy for the people using their product or service beyond whatever you could write in a report. When appropriate, invite them to tag along to interviews, workshops and contextual observations.

We are fortunate enough to have our Sydney and Melbourne offices equipped with viewing rooms via 2-way mirrors. Clients come in to watch usability testing sessions, workshops and interviews without disturbing the research. Participants are notified of the observers but the benefit of this setup is that they are able to ignore this after a few minutes.

If you do not have this setup, we have experienced the same results with a client sitting in the room. Though sometimes awkward at first, the client’s presence is forgotten as long as (s)he does not interfere with the research. Always make a call on whether this is appropriate based on the topics being explored. If you think having a representative from the organisation in the room will affect your results, consider audio or video recording instead.

Clients viewing session from observation room

3. Delivery of findings

It is highly likely that this is already happening on a passive level.  At some point, there are findings from the user research presented to key stakeholders within the business in the form of a report or a presentation.

What I would recommend is that you consider how you might engage the various client teams in more active roles. Encourage those who were able to participate in the user research to speak up in the presentation, or even better, give them a role. Have each person offer a most surprising finding and include them in a closing discussion about what the findings mean for the business.

We’ve been lucky enough to find clients who have worked on the presentation with our team and some who have even co-written reports with us. Not surprisingly, these projects have been more successfully absorbed by the business as the engaged clients are more prepared to support and sell the results to other key stakeholders.

Brainstorming ideas on whiteboard

4. Idea generation

This is a great one that can be repeated throughout the course of the project. Host group brainstorm sessions to discuss what has been uncovered so far. Because the client team understands their business and now has helpful information about their customer needs, they are in the best place to contribute to solutions for new or improved products and services.

At U1, we call these whiteboard sessions. We invite the client to our workspace and discuss our thoughts on the research thus far, identifying customer pain points and opportunities and brainstorming solutions. Include all members of your team and the client’s to contribute a variety of perspectives.

Use of post-it notes on wall for planning

5. Roadmapping and prioritising

Once all solutions have been considered, developing an approach to implementing all of those great ideas should include the core client team. Invite the team to consider all of the potential solutions that have come from whiteboard sessions as a group and rate them in terms of viability and return on investment. Estimate time and costs for each as best as possible and designate a team to action each project to.

We have a template that we ask clients to complete that notes details about each project. Things to consider include estimated time and budget, responsible parties and any necessary dependencies. We spend a while working this information out for each project with them and then mapping the projects out across a timeline to create a roadmap of work.

Roadmapping with notes marking duration of project

About The Author

Kristy Former Head of Discovery and Design

Kristy brings great strength in research methodology to U1. She is inquisitive and passionate about human interaction and knows how to look beyond data to provide deep insights. Having completed advanced studies in anthropology, design and engineering, Kristy always aims to ‘design the right thing’, not just ‘design the thing right’. She brings with her a range of experience working with organisations in Australia and the United States on strategy, digital user experience, customer experience and service design projects.


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