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Design with, not for.

There is a research meme floating about that I am growing particular fondness for.

Social Co-Creation: The use social media to involve consumers directly in the product creation or innovation process.

Don’t get me wrong; the idea of introducing consumers to concepts early and often isn’t new. Nor is the idea of consumers picking up the proverbial pencil and proposing a solution. But – the idea that advertisers would and could listen to them so easily – now that’s new (at least to us.)

Clients are excited to get closer to consumers via social media. They want to explore this new channel and the good news is that they aren’t afraid of the lawyers anymore. In organizations where the battles of social media have been fought, there is already an excellent stage set for such research efforts.

Getting Started in Social Co-Creation

When was the last time you asked a question to your social media followers about what they thought about your content? Features? Product offerings?

How about recruiting people from your followers to review or comment on your current site(s)?

These are simple ideas, but powerful in return on ideas.

Yet – according to a Forrester panel survey of consumer product strategy professionals conducted in Q2 2010, just 38% of companies use social co-creation today (that is, 46% of the 83% of companies who engage with consumers using social media at all)

Luckily, I work with some of that 38%. Below I want to share what we are doing in social co creation, what we are learning and where we are taking it next.

Getting Ready to Co-Create:

Before engaging in co creation, it is essential that you attempt to know what your consumers know about your brand today. We need to always remember the difference between our knowledge of the product and theirs.

Don’t be surprised when consumers talk about TV spots that aren’t yours and product benefits you didn’t know you had. These are important notes for you to probe on in order to clarify messaging in future efforts.

The following are quick on-boarding exercises for preparing to co-create.

  • Use Your Product: This is so obvious that it is also sadly often overlooked. Get into the head of those consumers and think about how to engage them in a more than surface level conversation in the best way possible – become one of them.
  • Google Your Product: OMG you would not believe the reactions I get when I tell people what is on the first page of results for Google of their product name or nickname. This is easy to search, but admittedly harder to stomach — just remember that knowing is half the battle and whatever damage is done is also fixable with time and knowledge.
  • Be creepy at point of sale: Ok not too creepy, but watch the process people go through in selecting your product at point of sale. Do they spend time reviewing the decision? Do they even touch the packaging or just grab and go? Do they hesitate? Is there something fighting for their attention?

Recruitment of Co-Creators:

Surveys are a great first step to growing a base of co-creators. Once you have their demographic basics, you can cut the same consumer pool differently for a variety of objectives overtime.

You may consider co-creating with the people who are your biggest fans. Then again, why not consider talking to the nay-sayers who are still interacting with your brand socially. Everyone has something to say, and as always the answer is in the similarities in their differences.

Preparation for Co-Creation:

Nothing much changes in terms of running your research activities. A usability test doesn’t change because of the recruit from social networks, however in my experience there are a few things to pay closer attention to when recruiting this way.

  • In preparation of your activities and tasks, you have to pay special attention to the immediate bias your participants have due to their “fan” status. In my experience this can make conducting competitive reviews especially difficult – due to strong brand affinity. This is IMHO something easily combatable if the moderator is aware and the script is appropriate to that target.
  • Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) are incredibly important in co-creation. The last thing you need is for your participant to live tweet your co-creation session. Make sure the NDA is specially designed for social co-creation efforts in order to assure the lawyers know exactly what is at stake. Also make sure it is consumer-consumable. If the language isn’t understandable, it will be harder for them to understand and therefore be overall less effective as a set of rules for their interactions with your brand.

Hosting Co-Creation:

  • Create relationships with your participants. Aim to bring them on board long term in your efforts. Even if this is the only approved event (for now) always include a future opt-in as part of your script.
  • Don’t discourage participants from becoming friends. I witnessed this behavior in a situation around healthcare co-creation and it was really nice to see participants find like minds through our efforts. Make sure your moderators and staff members are ok with this as some discouraged this by default.
  • Explore self-ethnography assignments: Have your participants bring something to the session or send something in after. It allows them personal reflection time and often gives much more area to explore with them in the future. Drawings, video and or traditional journals, activity booklets – all are excellent ways to synthesize their feelings on the brand, and also on the process of co-creation
  • Always ask for feedback on making co-creation activities better in the future, and don’t be afraid of the reactions.

Taking “with, not for” to the water cooler:

I love the simplicity in the idea of collaborating with consumers in the creation of brand experiences. But that’s not the only application of this principle that I want to talk about.

While the following lessons should also apply in co-creation situations with consumers, today I want to talk about them today in connection with designing with, not for your clients and coworkers.

In my experience these principles can yield an immense return when applied to the team environment: An integrated belief in a unified design vision. These principles also have incredible application in the role of a moderator in any consumer co-creation session

…play devil’s advocate not naysayer: The strength in the devil’s advocate position is that your support for the defendant is already built in. When you are clear that this is the role being played: the act of poking holes can go from devious to collaborative.

…have no toes on which to step: The act of doing wireframes and flow diagrams is not evil when done by non-UX people. Purveying this idea is not getting us anywhere. Make it clear to everyone that you are there to shepherd the right solution, not land grab for billable hours and piles of paper.

…make things bigger and then smaller: Often the big ideas come out too late when everyone is afraid of the price tag. Try to play the “how big can we make this” game early in the process. This provides the team with an idea of creative energy behind the concept – and it tells me, the UX planner what to expect from the conversations later on. Remember that if you don’t manage the scope as a team, it is the shiny objects that stick. So, instead get everything on the table and prioritize as a group. Make it bigger and then decide what smaller pieces to tackle first, next, last etc.

…admit when you have no skin in the game: This one is hardest for me. I always want to think about the product of the team end-to-end, but there are special moments when argument on a point is not needed because it is not your decision to be making or informing. IMHO this is the hardest lesson to learn in UX – since we reach both so broadly and deeply into the processes in which we inform. Keeping these lines clear is a funny business.

Thanks for reading.

This post is the 3rd of a series: UX Rules for Advertising Agencies.