The Employee Engagement Network

Engagement Platforms Must Enable Co-creation


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Francis Gouillart for the Harvard Business Review blog (March 9, 2011). To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.

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There is a major trend in the design of physical products. It is the gradual opening up of the lab and the engineering department to co-creation with customers and other parties. Co-creation involves giving customers the right to participate in the design of their own experience, not only by giving input about what they like and don't like as in traditional market research but also by giving them tools that allow them to become actual designers.

Engineers are no longer design experts; they are mediators who structure and enable design interactions between imaginative customers and innovative suppliers of technologies and systems. The development of those tools—we call them engagement platforms—represents a major opportunity for product companies and technology developers. By and large, both populations are missing the boat, hopelessly lost in a process paradigm that tries to automate the company's design process rather than open it up to experience co-creation.

Take the example of a car. Designing an automobile involves engineering a mix of physical objects and virtual interfaces. Cars compete on their sleek design. But they also compete on the social interactions they enable between driver, passengers, and people outside the car.

Car engineers are passionate about the driver experience. They are less comfortable with designing interactions between driver and passengers, and even less comfortable making the car into the hub of the car users' social network. Engineers love leather seats and shiny dashboards. They do not like Facebook chatter.

Most car companies have come a long way in becoming "customer centric" and hearing "the voice of the customer." This falls far short of co-creation. The voice of the customer is only one voice in the ecosystem of co-creation, and an imperfect one at that since customers cannot imagine what they have not seen. But the main problem with "voice of the customer" is that it is not scalable. Yes, one can create deep ethnographic explorations of selected car experience areas, but the cost of gathering that data and distributing it to the right point in the company's design process is prohibitive, leading the approach to collapse under its own weight. As a result, car engineers revert to a few "clinics" aimed at testing largely pre-ordained, company-centric designs.

While car engineers are struggling to accept the legitimacy of customers in co-creation,

the greatest culprits are the technology providers. Large software providers remain caught up in a closed-system paradigm, preventing car users from developing their own applications or interfaces.

Designers of product lifecycle management (PLM) systems — the computerized design tools used by engineers to design — remain object-centric and fail to enable the experiential dialogue that needs to take place between customers and designers, long before hard objects are drawn and specified. There are a few exceptions here and there. Infosys Technology has launched a co-creation practice. Dassault Systemes is making a push to make PLM technology more co-creative. By and large, though, the early players in the development of co-creation platforms are technology-weak designers of simple user interfaces, many of them with an advertising, rather than technology, background. Oracle, SAP, Microsoft, and Cisco, where are you?

What is needed is a broad-based engagement platform that attracts car customers and their social partners and gives them tools and structure to interact effectively with car company designers, their automotive parts, and software suppliers. This platform will need to include the ability to discuss abstract items such as lifestyle trends or qualitative design themes, provide the ability to exchange conceptual designs and sketches, and supply the capability to co-design concrete objects such as seats and parking brakes down to specifications.

This engagement platform may emerge in the car itself (the infotainment or telematics interfaces found in many high-end cars offers a promising foundation). Or it may emerge from the PLM desktop of the car engineers or even from a newly created website comparable to what Starbucks has created with mystarbucksidea.com.

Whoever designs the most compelling design engagement platform will attract the most effective design ecosystem and become the dominant car company of the 21st century. The race is on.

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Francis Gouillart (fgouillart@eccpartnership.com) is president of the Experience Co-Creation Partnership, a management education and consulting firm in Concord, Massachusettes, and is co-author of The Power of Co-Creation: Build It With Them to Boost Growth, Productivity, and Profits.

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