What is Co-design? A Primer on Participatory Design
February 1, 2023
Human-centered design is an approach to problem-solving that focuses on developing solutions to the challenges that people face every day. It’s a powerful process for deepening our empathy and understanding of the people who use our websites, apps, products, and services built to meet their needs.
When we focus on people while practicing design, our odds of success are greater, and we can be confident that we are releasing what our users need to help them tackle their challenges.
In this guide, we’ll explore how co-design actively involves the end user to design solutions for complex problems, outline ways you can incorporate your own co-design process, and include actionable templates for proven co-design methods.
What is co-design?
Co-design is the process of involving multiple stakeholders in the design and development of products, services, or systems with the goal of creating solutions that are more relevant, effective, and satisfying to the people who will use them.
Results in more innovative and creative solutions, delighting the end user
Common drawbacks and challenges of co-design
It can be time-consuming and resource-intensive to implement the right solution
Conflicting opinions make decision-making more complex
Ideal solutions may not always be feasible or practical
Can be challenging to ensure equitable participation and representation of every stakeholder
Occasionally difficult to measure impact or success
Co-design vs co-creation
Remember: co-design and co-creation are different concepts. Co-design is a specific type of co-creation that focuses on the design aspect of product or service development, while co-creation is a broader term that encompasses a range of collaborative activities aimed at creating value together with stakeholders.
Co-design can look different across all types of problems and industries, but the user experience always informs the outcome.
Examples of co-design in practice: The Double Diamond
Among the various human-centered design processes that we use while co-designing, the Double Diamond process is very helpful, with its phases of divergence and convergence, in helping us think broadly and then align on a plan. First, let’s briefly discuss the framework and suggest moments when collaborating with people makes the most sense.
What is the Double Diamond method?
The Double Diamond method is a design thinking framework that can be used in co-design to involve stakeholders in the design process. The four stages of the Double Diamond method are discovery, define, develop, and delivery.
The Double Diamond method allows stakeholders to be involved in the design process at every stage, ensuring that their needs and concerns are taken into account. This leads to better outcomes and helps to create design solutions that are more effective and accepted by the intended audience.
The left diamond, sometimes called “the problem space,” contains the ‘discover’ phase, where we’re diverging and going broad, talking to and observing people to understand their challenges. It also contains the ‘define’ phase, where we’re converging and focusing on the main challenges, through insights that have bubbled up in the discover phase.
On the right side of the Double Diamond, referred to as “the solution space,” we have the ‘develop’ phase, where we again diverge and go broad, this time while envisioning solutions to the challenges discovered in the problem space. Last is the ‘deliver’ phase, where we converge and focus on a solution that works best for our users through testing, feedback, and iteration.
During this stage, research is conducted to understand the problem and gain insights into the stakeholder's needs. This stage is focused on empathizing with the stakeholders and gathering information.
In this stage, the insights from the discovery phase are used to define the problem and determine what the design solution should achieve. The goal is to clearly define the problem and create a shared understanding of the challenge.
In this stage, multiple solutions are generated and prototypes are created. This prototyping stage is focused on ideation and experimentation.
In the final stage, the solution is refined and brought to market. This stage is focused on testing and implementation.
Moving between steps in the Double Diamond
The Double Diamond is not necessarily a linear process. You may not move seamlessly through the Double Diamond from left to right, though it’s possible that you’ll go through it that way. Most likely, you will move back and forth between the diamonds or phases as you discover new insights from research or learn that you missed something during testing.
Collaborating with people takes different forms depending on where you are in the Double Diamond process. If you’re in the problem space (discovering what challenges people are facing), or if you’re in the solution space (envisioning ideas), then there are reliable design methods you can use to collaborate with people.
Templates for the problems stage
We typically begin by learning as much as possible about the problem or challenge we are facing. A big part of that happens while we’re in the discovery phase, on the left side of the Double Diamond, while immersed in the problem space.
Here, we want to use design methods that enable us to work directly with people, discussing their considerations and the choices they make. When we collaborate with our users, we gain a richer understanding of their challenges and needs. Let’s explore a few of the methods that you can use to collaborate with people while in the problem space.
What’s On Your Radar reveals what’s on people’s minds as they approach a particular challenge and how they prioritize what’s most important.
How to use What's On Your Radar:
Start by creating a radar that has a series of circles, beginning with a small circle in the middle, labeled primary, another larger circle around that, labeled secondary, and an even larger circle around that, labeled tertiary.
Bring together a group of your users and have them capture their thoughts about a challenge on stickies.
Sort the stickies into groupings with labels, using a method such as Affinity Clustering, to see what patterns bubble up from the collective output. Add your grouping labels to the radar and instruct participants to plot the stickies that were within each group according to primary, secondary, or tertiary importance.
Make sure to encourage discussion as the group is plotting its stickies so you understand the motivations behind their choices.
Get started with the What's on Your Radar template
Problem Tree Analysis
The Problem Tree Analysis is a great method for digging into the causes and effects of a problem or challenge people might be facing.
How to create a Problem Tree Analysis:
Together with your users, first capture the root causes of the problem. Capture what you know about the challenge, based on the research you’ve done, while your users are capturing what they’ve experienced. Discuss the output and cluster them together, putting the groupings together under causes.
Next, do the same for the branching effects and consequences that result from the problem. Again, capture what you know about the problem while your users do the same. Similarly, discuss the output and cluster under effects, looking for connections between the clusters that share some relationships.
Finally, combine Problem Tree Analysis with a converging method such as Visualize the Vote to gain alignment on what are the most important causes and effects.
Rose, Thorn, Bud
Consider a process, service, or subject that has some challenges your users are facing. Use Rose, Thorn, Bud to find what’s working, what’s not working, and where there might be opportunities if more attention is given to an aspect of the challenge.
How to start a Rose, Thorn and Bud exercise:
Together, use pink stickies (roses) to capture what’s working well, blue stickies (thorns) for what’s not working well, and green stickies (buds) for areas of opportunity.
Next, combine the roses, thorns, and buds with a converging method such as Affinity Clustering to see where patterns arise between your user’s output and yours, and to see where there are commonalities and differences. Discuss the groupings that take shape and label them together.
Once the groups have come together, you can use the color coding of the stickies to discover where there are problem areas to focus on (blue thorns), where there are areas of possible opportunity to investigate (green buds), and where there are things to celebrate that are working well (pink roses).
Templates for the solutions stage
Once we have gone through the problem space of the Double Diamond and have a good understanding of the challenges people are facing, we can begin to dream up solutions to those challenges.
Now we want to go broad and envision many ideas as we enter the solutions side of the Double Diamond. Again, we want to collaborate with people to co-create solutions to their challenges. Let’s review some methods you can use to collaborate with people in the solution space.
Thumbnail Sketching with people is a fun way to come up with a lot of ideas together in a short amount of time. It promotesvisual thinking when exploring solutions to challenges and invites discussion of ideas when reviewing the designs.
How to get started with Thumbnail Sketching:
Begin by bringing your users together and giving them some markers and paper, or grab some dry erase markers and gather around a whiteboard. If you’re remote, use an online whiteboard platform like Mural and upload photos of your sketches. Review your research together and ask participants to roughly sketch out ideas to the challenges uncovered. Let them know the sketches can be messy. We want to promote visual thinking at this point, not perfection.
Once you’ve sketched out ideas, you can employ a method such as Critique to evaluate the ideas.
Begin by having the group ask clarifying questions about the sketches before moving into the critique. Ask reviewers to start with warm (or positive) feedback, discussing the things that are working well in the design.
Next, collect cool (or negative) feedback and discuss the aspects of the design that aren’t working. At the end of reviewing the sketches, ask reviewers to suggest how they might improve upon the designs. Repeat rounds of sketching, critique, and iteration until you have an exciting set of possible solutions.
Creating Concept Posters is a quick and visual way to flesh out ideas without spending too much time and effort. Since it’s done quickly — in an hour or less — Concept Posters need to be highly collaborative. They are perfect for co-designing with people.
How to create a Concept Poster:
With your users, break into teams and join them in tackling a common challenge or problem they’re facing. Give them materials such as pens, colored markers, paper, tape, and scissors. On large, poster-sized paper, create sections at the top for the audience the solution is designing for as well as a short summary of the idea and what problem it solves. In the middle, draw a large illustration of the concept or a diagram of how it works.
Encourage participants to think about why the concept might fail or how they might measure if it’s successful and add those to the poster at the bottom. If your group is remote, you can build the poster template in your favorite digital whiteboard tool and ask them to pull in icons and images from the internet to make the poster visual. Finally, have them think about what to call the concept and write it at top.
As we want to build our posters quickly, encourage teams to do a first draft quickly, on a separate piece of paper, then put the final poster together. Tip: divide up the sections of the poster, for different team members to work on to move even faster.
When teams are finished, hang up their posters and have each group present their concept, leaving time for questions from the other teams. After presenting and discussing the concepts, use a converging method such asVisualize the Vote to gain alignment on which idea the group likes best. You can also vote on specific ideas or features within each Concept Poster and see if the winning pieces can be picked up and used to improve the winning poster.
Buy a Feature
Buy a Feature uncovers how people consider options and deliberate as they’re choosing the things they need in a design.
How to run the Buy a Feature exercise:
To begin, go through the research you have with your users and, together, create a list of features that offer solutions to the challenges uncovered. Create playing cards describing each feature’s details and prescribe a cost to them based on the perceived worth of the item or the amount of effort to build it.
Next, break into groups and give them a limited amount of artificial money, enough to buy some features but not all. Invite a member of a different group to buy another group’s features using the money they have, listening to their discussions as they decide what to purchase. Remember to provide some blank playing cards so that buyers can add features that you may not have thought of.
One fun thing you can do after they’re finished buying features is to take some of their money away and see what trade-offs they make as they deliberate what features to remove. This shows you what people truly value in the features of a design and sets you up to useRough & Ready Prototyping to build a solution to test.
How co-design enables effective collaboration
Whether it’s in the problem space or the solution space, co-designing with people reaps huge benefits. For example, collaborating with your users…
Reveals what they value and want
Shows how they deliberate and make choices
Uncovers their latent and unmet needs
Challenges their preconceptions, as well as our own
Leads to richer solutions that solve their needs
Creates outputs that inform work in other phases of the Double Diamond
The bottom line: keep people at the center of problem-solving with co-design
Co-design isn’t just a method of keeping users in mind during the design process, it actively involves them in co-creating a solution. This not only helps keep stakeholders engaged but also helps avoid some of the most common design thinking challenges.
Collaboration through co-design deepens our empathy for others and increases our understanding of what people need in order to overcome the challenges they are facing. When we design with people, we act as partners, and stakeholders can take an active role in envisioning and creating solutions that truly meet their needs.
Now that you know how co-design works, put it into practice with Mural and the LUMA system. With this combination of a powerful collaboration space and guided methods, your teams will be equipped to tackle complex challenges, imagine new possibilities, and keep people at the center of their design processes.
About the authors
About the authors
Former UX Design Director
Jon is a UX design leader, manager, facilitator, and educator, based in Chicago, and has worked at a variety of companies including CVS, Mural, LUMA Institute, Arity, Allstate, and Cars.com.
Content Marketing Manager
Bryan is a Content Marketing Manager @ MURAL. When he's not writing or working on content strategy, you can usually find him outdoors.