Tips for generating empathy and ideas using co-creation

To paraphrase Buckminster 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 and collaborating).  

On that note, co-creation workshops are a type of generative research that allow UX designers to turn principles into action by getting customers, multi-disciplinary teams and/or stakeholders  to collaborate and produce design solutions together. For teams new to the world of UX, they can 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 our UX team choose to do a co-creation workshop?

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, I suggested we facilitate a co-creation workshop (involving “Proto-personas”, and Empathy Mapping) which would give non-designers on the team a glimpse into the UX design process. This approach was also chosen because the instructions are straightforward, making it possible for the large number of participants to complete the exercise within strict time constraints.

What the heck is a “Proto-Empersona”?

A persona is a profile that allows a team to better understand who they are designing for by using behavioural data to identify common psychographic characteristics and motivations (such as age, occupation, related needs, goals and other defining characteristics. “Proto-personas” are like personas, but are informed by brainstorming and anecdotal evidence (rather than verified data).

Empathy mapping keeps the analysis human-centred by focusing attention on the feelings and actions of “the user”. Since product teams are often focused on the feasibility, execution and/or business value of an end solution, this activity helps them shift their attention to the user’s needs.

In the context of our co-creation workshop, the Bibliocommons CEO wanted the team to explore the “Record Keeper” persona, who is recognized by their penchant for keeping fastidious records (usually related to a hobby, collection or responsibility). 

Since the workshop participants would benefit from think more deeply about the perspective and feelings of the “Record Keeper” persona, I created a one page worksheet that incorporated “empathy mapping” into our proto-persona.

And thats where the “Proto-Empersona Canvas” comes in… 

Above: The “Proto-Empersona” canvas combines the characteristics of a proto-persona and an empathy map. 

What can be accomplished by co-creating and building empathy skills?

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.

Are there any drawbacks of using Personas to inform design?

Proto-personas are a fun and fruitful way to create engagement and sp– 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 as they do not paint a full picture – people do not act the same way in every situation! Context and emotional state impact their needs and decisions. Focusing too much on defining the characteristics of a particular group can distract a team from understanding the context and issues they are solving for.

This is where using a context-centred framework like Jobs To Be Done can come in handy, because rather than focusing on meeting the needs of a specific group, it considers how context and motivation can inform needs and solutions that are common across customer segments or “personas”.

Tips for leading a co-creation workshop:

The Bibliocommons’ Recordkeeper “Proto-Empersona workshop” as an example, but these tips can be applied to many in-person, co-creation activities.

1. 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. 

2. 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).

3. 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!

4. 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.

5. 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. In this case, not everyone in the group was required to draw, so the person most comfortable was encouraged to volunteer.

6. Set a reasonable time limit.

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.

7. 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.

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!