Six steps to Co-Design: What it is and why your company needs it more than ever

Partner and Executive Director
Associate Strategy Director

The computing pioneer Alan Kay once said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

But have you ever wondered how designers do that? Traditional research approaches, like interviewing focus groups with a set of fixed questions, can only tell you about the challenges we face today. Not what might happen tomorrow, or how to solve any future problems. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a young adult just starting out in the world, or whether you’re a well-established company looking to create a new solution that meets their needs, the simple fact is this: we all find it hard to imagine tomorrow.

Found in translation

Co-Design can help. It’s an approach that enables design and research teams to imagine a future state and uncover deeply held needs that your customers do know but struggle to articulate. While Co-Design is most prominently used by service designers, we’re seeing it deliver high-impact results for product design teams by uncovering new ways to resonate with customers.

Why you need Co-Design: Z is for Zendaya

And when it comes to customers, there’s one particular group on everyone’s mind: Generation Z. Among Gen Z’s leading voices is the 26-year-old actor Zendaya, who was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of 2022 and recently said: “My generation has the opportunity to change the world.” She wasn’t underestimating the phenomenal cultural and commercial influence of her global tribe. In fact, studies suggest that these young adults, whose age currently ranges from 13 to 26, have a total spending power of $140 billion and account for 40% of global consumers. Simply put, if you’re a brand then you need to respond to their needs – even when it’s hard to understand them. 

Co-Design is about designing with – not for – people. It’s a strategic approach that brings immense value to companies and their customers.

So what is Co-Design? At its core, it’s about designing with not for people. It’s a strategic mindset and a practical set of tools that actively includes your stakeholders — the people who use your products and services — in the design process as equals. It also brings immense value to companies: Research shows that design teams that use this collaborative approach generate concepts that “score significantly higher in user benefit and novelty.” By contrast, not using it tends to result in “diminished innovation outcomes.”
At Smart Design, we have a long history of tried and tested success using Co-Design to create both physical and digital products for customers of all ages. And we’ve recently discovered something new. As we’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies across a broad range of industries, delivering projects that evolve and expand the internal capabilities our clients offer, we’ve found that Co-Design is particularly powerful for Gen Zers. Also known as Zoomers, these young adults face unique challenges, as well as rapidly evolving needs and motivations, such as privacy and safety concerns on social media, as well as understanding their choices when it comes to healthcare.

Gen Z makes up 40% of global consumers. Ignore them at your peril.

Six tips for Co-Designing with Zoomers

Since many of our latest Co-Design projects have targeted this group and these issues, we’d like to share what we’ve learned:

1. Clarify your goals

Typically, companies and teens speak a totally different language. If you’re part of a team designing for young adults, this can potentially make it challenging to understand what you’re trying to learn. Co-Design can help you can spot valuable insights early on in the process, particularly if your goal is to generate new, out-of-the box ideas, or uncover underlying needs and motivations. Keep in mind that what you play around with in Co-Design might look very different to the final designed solution; however, the approach often provokes reactions and insights that lead to key aspects of the final design. Take birth control as an example. When the U.S. non-profit Upstream reached out to Smart Design to explore how to better support their patient-led counseling model, Co-Design helped to translate the needs of the organization, the clinical staff and their young patients into an award-winning innovation. In one early piece of stimuli, we organized birth control methods into tiers of effectiveness on a chart, but found that patients felt that this was pushing certain forms of birth control which might not fit their specific needs. Our final design was a wheel, removing some of that hierarchy. According to Upstream USA, the entire process was “not only successful but also fun.” The takeaway? It’s crucial to listen, understand (and potentially translate) the goals and values of each stakeholder. 

2. Be inclusive

Z also stands for Zeitgeist. These days, young adults expect companies to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion. Doing so will bring more than their approval: it will also deliver more value to your project. So, welcome a range of opinions and ensure that sessions are designed for a range of people from different backgrounds with different needs. During our project with Meta, who wanted to understand how to address digital safety and privacy for teens on their platforms, we aimed to be inclusive of a broad variety of families that might have different perspectives and needs around privacy, safety and supervision (i.e., single family households, or teens who were supervised by a non-parent, like an uncle, aunt or older sibling). Doing so led us towards solutions that were simpler and helped the guardians we met feel on top of things. The takeaway? Working with a diverse group of people can uncover needs among people who are often overlooked, which might then resonate across the entire target group. 

3. Share the power

This step is about how the Co-Design team thinks about the project. Teenagers can sometimes feel that their opinion isn’t being taken seriously. When differences in power (whether that’s hierarchical, organizational or financial) are unacknowledged, the people with the most power tend to have the most influence over the end result – regardless of the value of their idea. Designers can tip that balance back, using ethical research approaches. The takeaway? A research environment that puts participants in the position of power, framing them as experts, will yield the best results. 

4. Create a safe space

This is similar to step 3, but addresses how the team acts; it’s the practical approach to sharing the power. Anyone who remembers being a teenager will know that it can feel scary or embarrassing to reveal something personal about yourself at that age. So, make a safe space for creativity. Keep stimuli low-fi and conceptual, and open-ended to encourage participants to show and tell. This approach worked well in a project with the campaign group Power to Decide, who work to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the U.S., when simple card sorting led us to the insight that teens prefer to know more about the side effects of different methods of birth control, rather than the science behind it all (none of them cared that the pill is 99% effective). Meanwhile, as part of our digital well-being project with Meta, we created groups with siblings and friends to help them to challenge and correct each other’s memories. And we used diary studies to encourage a self-awareness that tended to be less present in interviews. The takeaway? An indirect approach can sometimes uncover something deeply personal. 

If all else fails, gamify.

5. Make TikTok look boring

With Gen Zers, you’re competing for their attention all the time (ever been on a Zoom call and seen a cell phone screen reflected in someone’s glasses? Exactly). So, grab their attention and keep it. One way to do that is to make your design process social. For our Meta project, we played a game called Would you rather? where we asked teens to decide between two extreme and opposing scenarios. We asked them, for example, if they would rather “only be able to access social media for 15 minutes 3 times a day” or “let your guardians block social media at certain times a day.” It helped us to discover moderate solutions that they wanted and needed. Use the energy of groups or pairs and decide whether it’s in-person or remote. The takeaway? If all else fails, gamify.

6. Stay genuine

Trust and transparency are vital for Gen Zers. So always make it clear to your participants what’s going to happen next. Never over promise. Build trust and communication. Often, it’s easier for a third party to do this because they are free of business imperatives that can skew research. This is particularly crucial in areas like healthcare experience design, where it’s vital to protect the privacy and security of any patient data. The takeaway? Make sure you honor the time and engagement of your participants and let them know what you’re going to do with their ideas.

Understanding teens from Z to A

Today, Zoomers hold all the power. But as another old saying goes, “time flies.” Blink and the next generation will be setting the tone for the future. These kids may be 12 years old and under in 2022, but Generation Alpha are coming hot on the heels of their older siblings. And here at Smart Design, we’re excited to find out what this first digital native generation needs from the world – and can contribute to it – with Co-Design offering a helping hand along the way.

About Richard Whitehall

Richard Whitehall is a Partner at Smart Design who uses design to unpack strategic problems and drive progress. He brings expertise in design research and strategy, service design, and product development and has worked across the healthcare, TMT, mobility, and consumer packed goods industries. Some notable clients include HP, Microsoft, Ford, Upstream and Google. He has keynoted the SDN Global Conference, DMI Design Leadership Conference, and Quirks Conference.

About Katherine Eisenberg

Katherine Eisenberg is an Associate Strategy Director who is inspired by people, their emotional needs, and behavioral quirks. She brings expertise in mixed-method design research, strategy, and product development and has worked across the consumer goods, healthcare, and technology sectors. Her notable clients include CVS Health, Meta, Novo Nordisk, and PepsiCo and her research has been published in Fast Company. She holds a BA in Health and Societies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from NYU Stern School of Business.

Learn more about Co-Design at Smart Design