As innovators, it’s in our nature to want to jump right into brainstorming ideas once we’ve identified a core need. After all, ideation is often seen as the “fun part.” It’s tempting, especially if you believe you know your users through and through, to ideate and solve behind closed doors, separate from the user.

What if you included your users in the ideation process instead of creating concepts and having them react to it? If you’re at the stage in your innovation process where you’ve uncovered a pain point, co-creation could be a great addition to your approach that lets you collaborate with users to create or refine solutions, together.

Create stimuli as opposed to prototypes.

Design thinking encourages innovators to build low-fidelity prototypes to test with users, but co-creation requires us to rethink this approach a bit. Stimuli, or stim for short, have a sole purpose of sparking creativity and aiding in the discussion. In co-creation, it’s ideal to create stim that serve as building blocks for concepts but allow for the users’ own ideas to shine through. Instead of showing participants a full concept prototype, why not show discrete pieces of functionality or point solutions, then have the user riff on what they see and customize their ideal combination? For instance, if you want to get a sense of a user’s ideal dashboard, you could present them with multiple widgets and have them build their perfect view.

Set the stage for hands-on interactivity.

Unlike a standard empathy interview, a co-creation session won’t just involve asking questions of the user. Instead, it’s very much a high-touch interactive workshop that requires the participants to put on their thinking caps and create things. Setting this expectation at the time you begin recruiting your target users will get them in the best state of mind to participate. When you screen for participants, consider including a question that asks them if they are willing to do creative activities as part of the workshop.

Encourage blue sky creativity and “perfect world” solutions.

Co-creation isn’t the time to set guardrails for your participants with viability or feasibility limitations. Based on the stim you create, have them envision their perfect solution, regardless of whether they think it’s possible to build or has the potential to make money. Keep it blue sky and focused on the ideal instead of the plausible.

Rule of thumb: Know and validate user needs before you begin.

Co-creation isn’t exempt from the cardinal rule of design thinking: if you don’t know who exactly you’re creating for and what need you’re addressing, go no further. Ideation should only start once you have a foundation of knowing the ins and outs of the “who” (your user/target persona) and “what” (their pain point). If you don’t know this, you won’t even know who to recruit or have a foundation for your co-creation objectives.

Different approaches to co-creation (it’s not one size fits all!)

There are many different ways that you can incorporate co-creation into your innovation process. Here are just a few possibilities:

  • Design your dream solution: Individual participants create their perfect solution(s) to a specific pain point based on provided stim.
  • Divergent collaboration: Does the need you’ve identified involve two or more different “players” (i.e. a customer and a service provider)? Co-creation is a great opportunity to bring them together to develop complementary solutions based on mutual empathy.
  • Walk back the future: Ask your participants to envision different versions of the future that are each radically different, then facilitate the creation of a journey map walking backwards all the way to the current day. This type of scenario planning can be especially helpful in identifying potential trends and problems they face.
  • Creative combinations: Have different participants talk about solutions that have had the biggest personal impact, then collaborate with each other on unique ways to combine existing solutions into new ones aimed at solving the need at hand.

Coming up with ideas and solutions based on user insights is great, but involving users in the creation process can result in even better outcomes. The next time you’re faced with designing a new solution, consider user co-creation to supercharge your learnings.


Erin is a Director of Innovation at 352 with a passion for unraveling complex challenges, crafting creative new solutions, and accelerating the learning process to customer insights.