Co-Creation in the Age of COVID

Plan, Design and Facilitate Online Co-Creation Workshops

The COVID pandemic has forever altered the way human-centered designers facilitate co-creation workshops. The safest, and most convenient format to run co-creation workshops is online, either synchronously, or asynchronously.

I have been running online co-creation workshops for over ten years. Many of these workshops included participants who are located across the globe, and for whom meeting in the same room is not an option.

I have discovered three important factors in ensuring all participants enjoy a successful and meaningful experience in online workshops.
They are:
1) Clarity of the workshop design,
2) Meaningful interaction with facilitators, and
3) Active discussion and interactions among workshop participants

I was able to provide to provide more thoughtful, more complete responses to the exercises online than I would have if the workshop was in-person.
Asynchronous workshop participant (Nonprofit CFO)

What is Co-creation?
Co-creation has been defined as “purposeful action of associating with strategic customers, partners or employees to ideate, problem solve, improve performance, or create a new product, service or business”. In essence, co-creation experiences are a way in which to connect multiple stakeholders, bringing them together to discover their interests and values and using these opportunities to discuss, develop and implement projects or ideas to achieve new, inclusive, forward-thinking research strategies. As a result, co-creation experiences allow high-quality interactions and unique experiences, with those involved becoming connected, informed and empowered.

This was a new experience for me. I found it very productive and I enjoyed seeing what others were thinking. The process gave me time to think about what I wanted to convey, put it on paper, and have it peer-reviewed each day. This was more productive than everyone sitting around the table talking over each other while sharing.
Asynchronous workshop participant (Navy)

The Benefits of Co-Creation Workshop

  1. Building empathy: Understand a problem by inviting members of that community to participate.
  2. Defining a problem and objectives: Build team collaboration across departments.
  3. Understanding the user journey: Compile research conducted by different researchers across different markets.
  4. Putting the user at the center of UX design and getting stakeholder buy-in for the value that research brings: Involve stakeholders in usability tests.
  5. Focus in on key issues and create a shared reference point for stakeholders and designers.

The Sense of Intent Mindset

Frame the problem space through a quick diagnosis of the situation

The Sense Intent mindset is about continuously detecting the latest changes happening in the world today and forming speculations about what new situations may be looming on the horizon. It is about recognizing what is new or in flux, and identifying hotspots of potential growth. This mindset helps us identify potential opportunities for innovation and form our initial hypotheses.
Taken from: Vijay Kumar. “101 Design Methods.”

Reframing Problems

To be truly innovative, new problems and opportunities need to be thought through differently. Challenging conventional wisdom requires an understanding of how it came to be in the first place and thinking about how best to reframe it to be appropriate for a future possibility.

Just as it is important to question prevailing conventions, it is equally important to question how innovation challenges are framed. Is the innovation challenge about making a better mobile phone, a better mobile communication device, or creating a compelling remote communication experience? Moreover, mindsets for reframing problems broaden possibilities and help us arrive at nonobvious solutions.


Seeing Overviews

Big pictures help provide a broader understanding of the place compared to detailed perspectives on the ground. Innovators searching for opportunities greatly benefit from such overviews as well.

Parts, relations, patterns, and dynamics that are visualized as overviews help us better understand the changing context in which we intend to innovate.


Foreseeing Trends

Recognizing trends is a skill that can be cultivated by carefully learning to discern patterns of activities taking place around us. Simply being able to recognize which sectors of the economy are growing and which are in decline can help us develop a provisional sense of the economic opportunity.

Staying on top of the latest technology developments and seeing patterns of their adoption, we can begin to foresee how technology trends may shape the types of products and services that will be required in the future.


Reframing Problems

To be truly innovative, new problems and opportunities need to be thought through differently. Challenging conventional wisdom requires an understanding of how it came to be in the first place and thinking about how best to reframe it to be appropriate for a future possibility. Just as it is important to question prevailing conventions,

it is equally important to question how innovation challenges are framed. Is the innovation challenge about making a better mobile phone, a better mobile communication device, or creating a compelling remote communication experience? Moreover, mindsets for reframing problems broaden possibilities and help us arrive at nonobvious solutions.


Forming an Intent

Continuously keeping up with latest events and trends helps us develop hunches about where the world may be headed and gut feelings about the kinds of innovations that can be built on those trends. Many businesses operate according to such hunches. But such an intuitive approach may be wildly off the mark and can lead to unnecessary expenditures and failed products.

More than asserting an intent based on best guesses, grounding an initial intent statement in a fact-based context makes it both reliable and credible. It is ok to lead with a hunch but then qualify it with supporting evidence so that the emerging goals are reasonable and logical. The intent statement becomes even stronger if it can reference historical precedents.


Define your workshop's purpose

What is the "job-to-be-done?"

The first, and most important question you need to answer is: “What is the job to be done?” Keep in mind that workshops can be exploratory or focused on a single issue which means:

  1. You take a general approach and explore a theme or idea, or;
  2. You go deeper into the design process and closely examine a specific feature, concept, or approach.
Knowing what you want to achieve from the workshop will help determine your approach. Here are some questions that will help narrow the purpose of your workshop:
  • Have you defined a specific outcome for the workshop?
  • Is it more important to generate new ideas?
  • Is there an idea that needs to be refined?
  • Are there new features that need to be created?
  • Are there other stakeholders that you need to provide input into the process?
  • How many workshop participants are necessary?

The problem you are solving in the workshop should inspire your participants.

Make certain that you provide detailed context to the problem being solved so everyone understands why we are solving for it. Make the problem inspirational so that it's something participants need (and want) to solve.

Your problem should be open-ended enough to allow for as many solutions as possible. If your problem is too narrowly defined, it may suggest predetermined answers.

  1. Provide context to the problem so people understand why needs solving.
  2. Keep the framing of the problem open-ended. Have enough specificity to keep a tight focus on the issue at hand, but not so much that you pre-determine the solutions.


Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Co-Creation Formats

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Benefits of Synchronous Ideation

  1. Fast exchange of ideas: Synchronous communication facilitates speedy back-and-forth discussions, as well as swiftly building on each other’s contributions.
  2. Focused attention: Because there is a set time limit — the length of the agreed-upon meeting — team members will be focused on the task, so synchronous sessions can get results in a short amount of time.
  3. Team building: Direct communication among coworkers (whether on the phone or through a video-communication tool) builds camaraderie and thus facilitates the exchange of ideas in a remote team.

Drawbacks of Synchronous Ideation
  1. Scheduling: Finding a common time when all team members are available to meet can be difficult when the team is spread across different time zones or when members have a range of workloads.
  2. Remote-meeting awkwardness: Remote synchronous meetings are plagued with awkward instances of multiple people inadvertently starting to speak at the same time (followed by a long silence, then several prompts to “go ahead”) and uneven communication caused by group-dynamics issues.
  3. Difficulty selecting the right tool: Tools that go beyond sharing one person’s screen or streaming participants’ webcams, and that support sharing multiple idea sketches at the same time can be hard to find. Of course, remote sharing tools continue to evolve, so hopefully this issue will lose relevance in the near future.

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Benefits of Asynchronous Ideation

  1. Freedom to contribute when convenient: Asynchronous ideation avoids the tricky scheduling issues that synchronous sessions suffer from. People can share their ideas whenever they have time. That means each teammate can work around their own scheduling conflicts and deadlines, while still being able to contribute. Asynchronous ideation can be particularly useful if your company has only a few UX people, who are overloaded and support multiple teams. For the same reason, asynchronous ideation might also work better for fast-paced Agile schedules.
  2. Time for ideas to incubate: Asynchronous ideation gives people time and space to think through ideas on their own and frees them from the pressure to be a genius on demand. Often, people need to “mull over” a design problem before they can generate potential solutions. If you have some confident and talkative teammates who tend to dominate synchronous sessions, asynchronous ideation will allow the quieter teammates time to formulate their ideas and contribute without getting talked over.
  3. Less time wasted in meetings and allows each designer to more easily focus at a time that is more convenient for them
  4. Easier to keep everyone on the same page and happy about what they are building because it is easier for everyone to express their ideas.
  5. Newer team members can accelerate their knowledge about the product by reviewing things.
  6. Easier for reviewers to be extra-clear in their feedback since they have more time to properly write it.

Drawbacks of Asynchronous Ideation
  1. Fewer team-building opportunities: People won’t get a chance to directly interact to each other and connections may take longer to form.
  2. Less attention and focus: People can easily lose interest over days or weeks, especially as new work projects continue to arise. They might forget to revisit the shared digital space or continue contributing more ideas.
  3. More time spent catching up: Teammates will need to spend time getting back up-to-speed each time they revisit the shared space, reading through anything that has been contributed since the last time they looked. Depending on how many people are involved and how many ideas are generated, this process may end up taking quite some time.

  • CASE STUDY: You don’t need expensive tools. Co-creation using powerpoint, email and the phone.
    Asynchronous Workshop for Department of Defense

    You don't need expensive online tools for online co-creation workshops

    In the beginning… it was smooth sailing. I led a research team in the development of a two-day, in-person co-creation workshop. Then the COVID pandemic hit and we all found ourselves quarantined.

    The next logical step was to figure out how to hold this session (with over twenty participants) online. The problem we ran into was this: The Department of Defense has very strict rules as to what software can be used one their computers. They have very strict rules as to where information about their systems can be stored. Every fancy expensive online tool I was used to employing for online workshops was not approved. What the heck were we going to do?

    Take an inventory of what technologies the client currently uses.
    When we looked closely at the technologies the DoD uses every day we found three: 1) telephones, email and Microsoft Office. Could we design a workshop using only those three tools?

    Issues we faced:
    —Tools needed to be approved
    —Limited access to information
    —Limited access to people
    —Limited access to required systems

    Of course we can! We asked…
    What are the learning goals of this course?
    Measure each activity against the learning goals.
    Break activities up into digestible pieces.
    Does the workshop need to be live (synchronous) Ask: What are the pedagogical benefits of live co-creation sessions?

    We realized that the tools are not important, the framing and design of the activities are. We broke down each activity into 30 minute chances of time. We designed worksheets in PowerPoint for each activity. We broke the 20 person group into smaller 4 person pods. The secret was to chunk the workshop out into smaller parts and hold the workshop over the course of two weeks instead of a marathon session of two days.

    Here is how we did it.

    1. Each day we sent the participants a PowerPoint document with the activity for the day. We provided examples, and the contact information for a facilitator if the participants had any questions.
    2. Participants completed the exercise for the day (each exercise took no more than 20 minutes to complete).
    3. The participants emailed the PPT back to the facilitators.
    4. Facilitators synthesized the output and put that feedback into the next day’s deck.
    5. Each day built slowly on the previous day’s work.
    6. We ended the workshop with a phone conference with participants and delivered a readout of the groups work-product.

    I have participated in many workshops and I believe this format has been the most enjoyable. I was not made to sit in a full day workshop to provide ideas. My time was respected. Also, the daily format for brainstorming and presenting final ​ideas really encouraged thoughtful and rather quick fact finding.​
    Synchronous workshop participant (Department of Defense)

    Workshop Structure: Divergent-Emergent-Convergent

    Designing the activities
    We designed our activities so they could be quickly synthesized at the end of every day and reported back to participants the next morning.
    1. Design to easily capture and transfer into excel for synthesis
    2. Super quick turnaround (in evening) for morning readout deck
    3. Specificity of questions enables focused synthesis
    4. Guided by “learning goals”

    How we structured our week

    Brainstorming activity (example)
    Show, don’t tell: Always included examples for your participants. You are not in the room with them, over explaining goes a long way in helping participants feel empowered and minimizes confusion and frustration.

    Workshop Overview

    Stacks Image 1896
    20 Participants
    Stacks Image 1901
    6 Activities
    Stacks Image 1906
    180 Ideas
    Stacks Image 1911
    18 Solutions

    Lessons Learned


    A daily check-in with participants enhances participation and allows participants to raise any questions or feedback they have to the facilitators. Take a daily temperature of your group.
    —Health check


    One facilitator should act as the help desk in case participants get lost or have questions. Hold regal office hours


    —Bells and whistles fail
    —Be honest about your circle of influence
    —Assume the worst and have a response

Building an agenda

Maintain interest and focus on the “job-to-be-done”

Break your day into phases.
Break up the day into 15 minute increments, with some activities taking a bit longer. This will ensure that one activity does not go on for too long. You will be surprised at how much impact a 5-10 minute activity can have.

Plan variety into your activities
Co-creation sessions are interactive, and as such, you should plan your activities to maximize variety. For example, a group activity could be followed by a small two-person group activity to provide a space for participants to have deeper more meaningful interactions with each other.

Give participants time to exhale
Do not forget breaks. Schedule a break at least every 90 minutes. Co-creation is tough work, and it is exhausting. Give space for participants to rest and regroup.

Activities must always have a clear purpose
Every activity should be designed to solicit answers to workshop’s “job to be done” goal. If the activity does not push the answer forward, do not run it.


  • Behavioral mapping
  • Mobile mapping
  • Round robin
  • Shadowing

  • Collaging personal maps
  • Day in the life studies
  • Edges and extremes
  • Platform concepting

  • Directed storytelling
  • Desirability testing
  • Service blueprinting
  • Service roadmapping

Lessons Learned

Structure of your workshop must be goal oriented.
Ask yourself “how will this activity move the goal of the workshop forward?” That said, try and design a collaboration with opportunities for expansive, bottom-up thinking with a structure that focuses the conversations, insights, and data.

Your tools must be flexible and accommodating for all participants
Consider tools that accommodate different learning and thinking styles. Do not choose the latest flashiest tools—they can confuse and frustrate your participants. The tools should be invisible—the user should not be aware of the tools, only the activity.

Workshop participants should be diverse
The more diverse the voices in your workshop, the better and more plentiful the solutions will be. Diverse participants will minimize groupthink, cut across hierarchical relationships, and facilitate sharing.

Practice but don’t rehearse.
Practice the activities to make sure they work in an online environment, but don’t script your talking points. Authenticity, and the ability to pivot at a moments notice will make for a much more engaging and productive workshop.

Enjoy yourself
Listen, if you are having a good time, and are excited, it will rub off on your participants. An infectiously positive attitude will spread like wildfire throughout the group.

Current state of the COVID pandemic

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