Co-Creating? A Little Emotional Intelligence Goes a Long Way

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

Last week I implored you to include your stakeholders in the creative process in terms of UX design. Now I’m going to share proven ways to actually do that.

Stakeholders can offer designers invaluable insight on a project, but often it’s tough to get them to speak in-depth to share their knowledge. Still, it's worth the effort to get them to share because their input can lead to a more effective design solution because you’ll understand thoroughly the problem you’re solving. It’s up to you to facilitate the right kinds of conversations to get stakeholders to address the nitty gritty design details, not simply engage in the shallow, polite dialog of the standard business meeting. 

How do you make this happen? Organize a collaborative design workshop.

A design workshop is really just a structured meeting where you can solicit deeper contributions from participants while educating them at the same time. Yes, the idea of a workshop may be off-putting to some stakeholders – it sounds time-consuming and school-like – so you’ll need to assess your stakeholders’ capacity for engaging in design activities, and choose your words carefully when proposing this collaborative event.

If you get a positive reaction, prepare effectively. Have well-defined goals and outline the deliverables you hope to have in hand at the end of the workshop. For instance, if I was holding an initial workshop I’d probably focus on understanding in depth what a good experience is for users on my project. I’d hope to walk away from the meeting with a clear definition of the experience in words and/or pictures.

I’d also want to help the stakeholders move beyond any fixed ideas they may already have about the design and get past the quick, top-of-the-head requirements that often define a project idea so the team can walk away with a more complete set of requirements.

Planning Your Workshop

To set up your workshop, plan specific activities. (Once you do, be sure to organize relevant materials, and make sure you have the right technology and enough space to accomplish your goals. ) What kinds of activities? Those similar to ones you already engage in with your design team. Here are two examples:

Activity #1: Create a Storyboard

Brainstorm and draw storyboard panels of the imagined user experience. This can be done on a whiteboard or sheets of paper that can be passed around and re-ordered. Since there are likely to be alternate ideas, you may end up with several approaches and can then choose the best option as a team. Storyboarding first helps focus the design process on the user experience as opposed to features or requirements. Although some features may be a given, users tend to benefit when the experience shapes the requirements rather than vice versa.

Activity #2: List User Stories

Use the storyboards you just created to identify and list requirements as one-line user stories. Do it in a way that is easy to rearrange, such as with stickies or in a spreadsheet. (Later, you can organize the requirements by categories or sections of the experience.)

What if your stakeholders chafe at these activities?

If you have easy-going stakeholders willing to roll up their sleeves and dive into these design exercises, you’re golden. But, that’s rarely the case. More often, stakeholders arrive with preset ideas, tight schedules and a dose of impatience or indecisiveness. So how do you adapt and make the best of a situation when it doesn’t go as smoothly as planned?

Here are some ways to remove common obstacles to effective collaboration:

Problem: Stakeholders simply don’t have time

They hope you can design a great solution with minimum communication. Getting the requirements is like pulling teeth.

Solution: Make the workshop/meetings more momentous

Infuse your meetings with gravitas. Bring your CEO or division VP. It will increase the perceived importance and priority of your work and encourage stakeholders to participate more fully.

Problem: Stakeholders don’t have patience for the level of detail

Design is a painstaking process and not everyone is comfortable with the focus it requires.

Solution: Establish clear milestones

Create a process that requires sign-off on a list of design decisions at regular intervals. Breaking a large problem into smaller parts always makes it seem easier to do.

Problem: Stakeholders believe they know best how to design the project

Your stakeholders already know what they want and aren’t open to discussing other options. They just want you to execute based on their own design decisions.

Solution: Make it easier for them to understand design outcomes

Show them what their design – and your recommended design – may look and feel like by making things visible and tangible through prototypes. By showcasing both their ideas and alternate ideas early in the process, your stakeholders can understand the shortcomings (assuming they exist) of their entrenched ideas.

Collaboration is the Key to Design Success

Co-creating is a valuable approach. In many instances, it’s the linchpin of a project’s success. While at times it can be challenging and time consuming – this hypothetical design workshop is just step one in the process of creating a completed user experience – working in concert with your stakeholders will help you ultimately deliver a quality experience everyone will appreciate.

P.S. Sometimes as a UX designer, you’re called upon to be more than a designer, but also coach, educator and meeting facilitator. That’s reality. Embrace it!

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