Generating empathy and ideas with co-creation

To paraphrase Buckminister Fuller, practicing UX design is a verb, not a noun. By that I mean, we don’t just need to know UX (ie principles, patterns, process and best practices) we need to do UX (ie learning, researching, coaching, collaborating and advocating).  

Co-creation workshops are a type of generative research that allow UX designers turn principles into action by getting multi-disciplinary teams and stakeholders to collaborate and produce design artifacts together. For those new to the world of UX, they also foster a deeper understanding of the human-centred design process and its benefits.

Thanks to resources like Gamestorming and Innovation Gamesthere are no shortage of co-creation workshop ideas out there. Collect, combine and trade them all!  

Why did we choose this activity?

In this case, the UX team at BiblioCommons was tasked with getting about 65 team members from various disciplines to break into smaller groups and produce design artifacts for the ‘Shelves’ feature redesign. Shelves are a record-keeping tool on the BiblioCommons platform that, in a nutshell, allow library patrons to track material they have (or would like to) borrow.

To achieve this, we decided to facilitate a “proto-persona” workshop, which would give non-designers on the team a valuable glimpse into the UX design process. This activity was also chosen because the instructions are straightforward, making it easier for the large number of participants to complete the  exercise within strict time constraints.

What are personas and empathy maps?

Personas are sourced from behavioural data that allow a team to better understand who they are designing for by documenting various characteristics and motivations. Proto-personas are like personas, but are informed by brainstorming and anecdotal evidence (rather than verified data). 

Since the workshop participants would also benefit from using empathy to think more deeply about the motivations and feelings of the “record-keeper”, I created a one page worksheet that incorporated “empathy mapping” into our proto-persona. Empathy mapping keeps the analysis human-centred by focusing attention on the feelings and actions of the user. This helps product teams – who are often focused on how to execute the end solution – shift their attention to solutions that are relevant to the user’s needs.

Above: The blank “Proto-Empersona” template participants used which combines the characteristics of a proto-persona and empathy map. 

What can be accomplished with a proto-persona + empathy mapping exercise?

Infusing design thinking and empathy at the beginning of a design project

Getting stakeholders and team members involved in a human-centred process from the beginning gets them focused on the user, rather than the end solution. Participating in the process also helps people understand why certain UX decisions are being made and tends to make them more invested in the outcome. 

Creating alignment and/or revealing gaps, biases and opportunities for further enquiry.

This exercise is a great way to learn more about the stakeholder’s perspective and objectives. It can reveal what they know about who we’re designing for – as well as any potential biases or misalignment.  Is their knowledge data-driven or anecdotal? Is it based on demographic or psychographic data? Is it current? Do they have wildly different ideas about who we are designing for and what their needs are? These are all important questions which inform the discovery process and guide the next steps.

When should you do personas and empathy mapping?

  • In organizations with low to mid “UX maturity” (ie lacking a well-embedded UX design process). When people understand the process and the value of people-centred design, it’s possible to move the UX design process to a new level. You’ve got to start somewhere!
  • To help generate ideas at the beginning of a design project.
  • Anytime a team is jumping to solutions (ie answering “how?” or “what?”)  before considering whether they’re solving a genuine problem (ie asking “why?”). This is especially helpful if data informing the personas has been validated.

Tips for leading a co-creation workshop:

Add context to help stimulate ideas.

Blank boxes and new lingo can be daunting. In this case, we wanted to generate ideas about record-keeping, so our questions centred around the record-keepers perspective. Adding helpful guiding questions (such as “Goals and Needs: Why do they record-keep? What do they need to satisfy their goals?” ) clarified the tasks and focused the participants. 

But.. Don’t get too prescriptive about potential solutions.

Rather than narrow participants focus to providing a digital solution for the Shelves feature, we encouraged them to include any method that may be used to record-keep. This helps capture more possibilities for cross-channel solutions and is a fruitful source of inspiration for the design team (who might be able to translate these ideas into a digital product).

Designers on the team should facilitate, not participate.

If the point is to get a multi-disciplinary group of people to contribute, then designers should sit this one out. Otherwise, some groups might lean on the designer to “do the work” – or even feel secretly intimidated by their presence. Designers can be available for questions, encouragement, timekeeping or guidance. Don’t forget to remind people that there are no wrong answers!

Try to keep each group small (eg 4-6 people max).

This gives everyone in the group a chance to contribute within the time allotted and is more friendly to introverts.

Get people sketching – but be nice about it!

Sketching can be a really fun way for people to convey ideas in a succinct and visual fashion. But asking people who aren’t designers or artists to draw can make them feel intimidated, so make sure participants know it’s not about their drawing skills – it’s about the ideas they are able to capture. Not everyone in the group is required to draw either, so the person most comfortable can volunteer.

Set a reasonable time limit for completion and sharing.

Establish a clear timeline for completing the exercise and gently let people know when they are running out of time.  Make sure there’s enough time at the end of the workshop so there’s a chance for each group to present and discuss their results.  If time doesn’t allow each group to present, let the most eager groups present and share the rest on a company-wide messaging platform, like Slack.

Provide blank templates on larger paper (eg minimum 11”x17”).

This gives people space to capture more ideas – but still makes it easy for them to gather around a smaller table or post their work on a wall.

Make sure to validate results with data.

Proto-personas are a fun and fruitful way to create alignment – but using them as a basis for product decisions is risky. “Real” personas should be validated with data, otherwise they amount to a creative writing exercise.

Furthermore, personas themselves can be limiting. Focusing too much on the characteristics of a small set of people does not paint a full picture, since context and emotions impact decisions. People do not act the same way in every situation! This is where contextual frameworks, like Jobs To Be Done can come in handy.

Everybody wins!

The resulting “Proto-Empersona” artifact stimulated discussion, cultivated empathy, got people sketching and produced quite a few interesting feature ideas. The design team was able to use the resulting artifacts as a solid basis for further exploration and validation.

Getting the whole company involved made the team more invested in the project, while providing them with a deeper appreciation for a people-centred design & discovery process. This shared experience cultivated empathy not only for the end-users, but also for the members of the UX design team (who often spend a lot of time explaining the value of the UX research and design process). With co-creation, everybody wins!

Learn more about…

Empathy mapping 

The difference between personas and proto-personas

Co-creation exercise ideas

UX maturity models

The Jobs To Be done framework

Want to collaborate? Get in touch!