Many companies are rebranding themselves as participative, co-creation-led, or user centered, however, there’s still a high level of corporate uncertainty and confusion. When organizations fail to understand and leverage these practices adequately, there are systemic implications on overall strategy.


Participatory design is not a trend or buzzword, but a different organization model.


Introduced by Kristen Nygaard and Olav-Terje Bergo in the 1970’s when they worked with the Iron and Metal Workers Union in Norway, it’s a game changer because working with customers, rather than for customers, changes the dynamics of an organization. It requires that strategy be changed to reflect different attitudes and value systems.


Participatory design is a whole new vision that must be part of a company’s culture to be successful. It requires a holistic approach because when we change a part of a process, or a product, that change has an effect on the whole system. This is called system thinking, a less trendy concept than design thinking, but a necessary compliment. System thinking considers the whole rather than the parts. It is a holistic approach that focuses on the inter-relationships of all inter-connected parts to understand underlying structures and systems’ behavior. From a systems thinking perspective, it’s clear that changing the way we interact with customers changes the quality of the relationship. It requires that company’s culture embrace a different strategy, vision and execution.


Organizations that lacking participation within their own walls are naturally unable to apply participation effectively and efficiently. A lack of clarity, appropriate participative “genes,” or a lack of appropriate system thinking perspective can lead to negative experiences.


For example, when the German company Henkel launched a 2011 campaign seeking customers’ redesigns for its Pril dishwashing detergent, it failed to change its ways of doing business within its own culture.  Response was enthusiastic and the company collected 50,000 suggestions in few weeks. However, due to Henkel’s lack of engagement, some respondents hijacked the campaign, sending mocking designs. Perhaps those customers decided that the absent brand deserved a lesson.


In 2006, General Motors faced a similar issue when they attempted to crowd source their next commercial and instead ended up with a raft of amusing submissions about how bad their next SUV would be for the environment.


Both stories demonstrate that customers are happy to engage with brands, but they want to feel they are being heard. This can only happen when companies include customer voices in their internal conversations. One way might be to think of customers as an external board requiring and deserving attention.


Participatory Design and Shifting the Value Chain


Co-creation is a social, iterative, interactive, collaborative and creative process that generates innovation through the dialogue and participation of all actors, in order to construct value and new win-win opportunities and experiences.


Participatory design deeply affects an organization and traditional business approaches. In a participatory design led organization, the concept of a “value chain” focused on the company unilaterally creating value for consumers is obsolete.


A participative approach requires that organizations understand this big shift. Customers interact with brands in countless ways: social media, email, phone, chat, stores and forums. This hyper-connected customer has been empowered by technology to be part of the whole value creation process, and no longer the traditional prey, or consumer.


Moving from consumer to customer is revolutionary: if a consumer is one who uses up goods or products, a customer is a person with whom one has dealings. Customers are an integral part of organizations’ understanding of what is valuable and meaningful.


In 2011, Heineken launched the “Open Design Exploration 1, The Club.” In a blended experience combining crowdsourcing, online communities and digital challenges, the brand worked with customers to design a lounge bar experience. This required a different organizational mind frame and culture, an open ear, and a willingness to take on board what customers asked for, changing the value chain model itself.


Along with a changing value chain model, there was a parallel shift in what became valuable for customers, moving from the tangible (the beer) to the memorable (the club experience). The key success factor was not product-focused, but an understanding of what makes experiences memorable.


This approach requires constant conversation and the ability to listen, translating conversations into actionable strategies and memorable experiences. It’s also important that organizations understand that listening to and engaging are not in themselves strategies, but part of an attitude and a mind set that, to be fully implemented, must permeate the organization from within. 


Needs Are Not Memorable. Values Are.


From a system thinking perspective we can rethink the concept of needs: products may answer to real or constructed needs, but experiences answer to what individuals consider valuable and meaningful. Unlike consumers, customers don’t choose the best product on the market, they choose the best, most personal and memorable experience the product can deliver. They share their experiences with a brand through the digital ecosystem, revealing the conversational nature of markets and ultimately moving the nexus of the entire exchange.


Wipro Digital

Wipro Digital


We are a mix of strategists, creative directors, designers, writers, media strategists, digital marketers, developers and relationship builders. We’re committed to creating vibrant and relevant brand experiences on every level.

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