Co-Creation in Emerging Markets

Today, a guest post from my wife, Leslie, who for the last few years has been doing work in emerging markets, rural Mexico in particular. She recently completed her Masters degree from Middlesex University in England which focused on product design in emerging markets. Leslie is the founding head of the Design for the Majority special interest section of the Industrial Designers Society of America, which will be holding its first workshop at the IDSA National Conference in September. This excerpt from her thesis deals with using the approach of co-creation with the customers in the product development process. (Leslie can be reached at lespeer at mindspring dot com)

cocreation.jpgFor companies considering entering emerging markets, co-creation is an essential step in the development of product. Trying to “insert” an existing product designed for Western markets is almost sure to fail for many reasons: price, materials, durability, repair-ability, distribution methods, financing models, ownership models, advertising. Almost no preconceptions can be carried over from the markets that Western companies are used to serving. Co-creation is a powerful method of developing products from scratch or adapting existing product types to the needs of the emerging market.

Co-creation, or the idea of it, was introduced by C.K. Prahalad and Venkatram Ramswamy in their book The Future of Competition: Co-creating Unique Value With Customers , which presented different ways of engaging with customers in the product development process. I’m going to focus here on co-creation at the front-end of the process, where you’re defining the product to introduce into the emerging market.

First a couple of definitions are in order:

Emerging Market: There is no universally accepted definition of an emerging market, but the characteristics I’m using here position emerging markets between developed countries (United States, EU, Australia, Canada) and under-developed countries (many nations in Africa and South/Central America, and many in Asia). There must be an emerging level of economic development, a growth rate attractive to investors (most emerging markets have an annual GDP growth of 5-10%). Lastly there must be a system of market governance and stability in a free-market system, or a transition from a “command” economy to a free-market economy. There is a tendency, perhaps, to think of emerging markets as consisting of simplistic, uninformed consumers who want only basic goods. In fact, consumers in emerging markets are highly sophisticated and are informed by many of the same media and telecommunications mechanisms that exist in developed markets.

Co-creation: It is important that co-creation is not confused with the practice of consumer generated content, mass customization or other similar, but different methods. Co-creation, in its pure form, is just what it sounds like – making something together. The planning phase of projects is where the research and creative team can push the limits on how they get involved with researching their customer. Co-creation at this stage assumes that in a developing country the people there are not only different, but also very smart (as a result of their differences).

First, it requires a bit of rethinking how to structure and implement projects, and what methodologies and skills are brought to bear on the problem at hand. This is not new for industrial design, which in the past has collaborated with and made use of methods from multiple other disciplines. In recent years the use ethnographic methods, modified to fit fast-paced and low-budget projects, has been successful at introducing the user perspective to product teams.

Participatory design and empathic design are approaches to the front end of the process that were introduced back in the 90’s by computer software companies and have been adopted and applied to the greater product design process by various corporations and by design firms.

Prahalad’s ideas on co-creation go deeper still – as that is what is necessary in developing countries and emerging markets. Co-creation is empathic techniques plus ethnography plus participatory methods on steroids. It includes the user/customer as part of the team and affords them the same level of importance as any of the other members of the team. In developing countries, as was mentioned earlier, the consumer is smart, connected, intuitive, entrepreneurial and a consummate problem solver. With limited resources and many needs, many people in developing countries are this way. Without infrastructures and services to problem solve for them, they have learned how to do it themselves, and have for generations.

Thomas Mitchell points out that although involving users in the design process may seem simple and logical, it is in fact a fundamental challenge to the prevailing school of product development. He argues that despite a recent focus on “customer centricity”, few if any corporations have actually tried to involve customers directly in the process. Instead, designers, who set themselves apart from the masses, tend to make assumptions about what people will like, maybe ask them what their preferences are, or even present alternative solutions to them (prototypes) for review. However, the user is never given a true opportunity to be involved in the actual process of design.

We have been able in the past to integrate many disciplines into the product development and design process such as law, anthropology, human factors, psychology, engineering, and others. Integrating the user and customer fully into the process is the near to final step. I would argue that getting users and customers involved in the process is a necessity for any work and development in emerging markets.

Why? In the developing world, users and customers are smart. They must problem-solve on a daily basis, for a couple of reasons. First, they are economically challenged to the point where they do not have the luxury to go and hire someone to fix their car, their stove, their house – they fix it themselves with whatever they have on hand. Second, the infrastructure to do that, even if they had the funds, is not there, so locality breeds innovation and necessity breeds entrepreneurship. Additionally, since many of the people living in these developing countries are living closer to the land and to nature, they are inherently more connected to how what they do affects their environment. Now, they may not be able to do much about it, but they are aware of it.

The idea of co-creation, really getting customers and users to sit at the design table with us is the future. They bring a level of intrinsic knowledge of their culture, their environment, nature, problems they and their community face, connections to their system, and ways of thinking through and solving problems that are designed to work for them. For multi-national corporations it might require starting new businesses that can operate swiftly and flexibly, and that aren’t bogged down by the parent company herd mentality. For individual designers it will require embracing new modes of thinking that include collaboration with governments and other organizations, working with users and customers as co-designers, understanding more about sustainable product development, focusing on sustainable entrepreneurship, and also looking at new methods of innovation, production and distribution that more thoroughly incorporate the customer and user.