Building more equitable product experiences through community co-creation

Including marginalized communities in product development is essential to increasing creative access

An pink, yellow, teal, and lime green illustration of squares and rectangles on a purple background. From three of the rectangles emerge a pink hand holding dipping a brush into a palette of paint, a blue hand drawing a circular line with a pen, and green hand turning a knob. More rectangles and squares with speech bubbles, pairs of eyes, an ear, a megaphone, and a capital T in a bounding box.

Illustration by Ellen Porteus

It’s through lived experiences, culture, and unique stories that new art is born. Creative expression is integral to connecting like-minded people, building understanding, and engendering compassion. But Historically Underinvested and Marginalized (HUM) communities can be blocked from mediums of self-expression and storytelling by ableism, historical oppression, systemic exclusion, and a lack of resources that can reduce (or erase) access to tech.

Since there isn’t enough documentation of these lived experiences intersecting with the use of modern technology, it can be tough for equity practitioners to understand the needs of marginalized social identities and serve them meaningfully. Gaining insights from those communities historically excluded from stereotypical research demographics is critical to creating equitable products and furthering product innovation. But that requires shared decision-making, mutual learning, and innovation that tries to understand and solve the challenges of marginalized communities in a way that’s beneficial to all.

The concept isn’t novel. It stems from co-design, participatory human-centered design, and other research practices that focus on product innovation with a group of people then generalizes decisions across user groups and identities. But designing based on assumptions about marginalized identities can create a product with implicit biases, which can make tools not usable, and lead to challenges. Those challenges (which can include lack of demographic clarity, difficulty in maintaining long-term partnerships, or lack of capacity to invest the required time, resources, labor, love, and patience) are lessened when communities lead the narrative and product equity teams co-plan with them.

When working with HUM communities the goal is to understand product and social challenges specific to a community’s lived experiences. That requires understanding their ecosystems, lack of power and privilege, historical context, and systemic challenges that could produce harm and bias, limit access, or result in loss of opportunity. We define this as the practice of equitable co-creation. It centers trust, reciprocity, and inclusion of HUM communities in decision making at every phase of the product design and development process. It’s essential for equity practitioners to engage with marginalized groups so they can build ecosystems and products that authentically represent these communities, removing barriers to access and allowing innovation to transcend systemic barriers of oppression. The unique and creative solutions resulting from these co-creation engagements can expand across many groups of users.

While every co-creation effort will have its own parameters and nuances, there are some universal guidelines that helped us create a framework for a recent pilot workshop focused on designing flyers in Adobe Express. We’ve broken the framework into a series of considerations that can help other teams establish meaningful partnerships and co-creation with marginalized communities.

1. Identify a community and what they want to accomplish

Identify the communities most likely to benefit from a long-term co-creation approach. Unfortunately, because HUM communities are habitually overlooked, it can make it challenging to find them or for them to proactively reach out. Some upfront questions to help identify these communities:

Choose the community that most aligns with these questions. One of the success metrics of co-creation, also known as community-driven participatory design, is that it's reciprocal: Design and research teams can benefit from product insight that makes their product better for more users, while underinvested community groups might benefit from educational resources or financial access to the product or technical tools.

Equitable co-creation centers trust, reciprocity, and inclusion of Historically Underinvested and Marginalized communities in decision making at every phase of the product design and development process.

These mutual benefits were key in our Express Learning & Intellectual Disabilities (ELID) pilot workshop with Speaking for Ourselves (SfO), an independent self-help, self-advocacy organization run by and for people with intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disabilities.

Since IDDs (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) encompass a wide-range of conditions affecting memory, motor skills, problem-solving skills, attention, and comprehension—which many people could face to varying degrees during their lives—our goal was to deepen our understanding of the challenges people with IDDs face as a step toward creating more inclusive product experiences for all. SfO’s goal was to self-advocate and learn best practices for designing printable flyers that they could leverage to raise awareness for disability rights.

A woman, standing with her back to the camera, is writing on a whiteboard and blocking the word directly in front of her. There are multiple words on the board written in orange, green, black, and blue marker. They are visible but in no particular order: No Labels, Knowledge Building, Professional, Community, Adaptable, Growth, A Movement, Individuality, Share Your History, Community, Building Others Up, No "Boxes" or Stereotypes, Empowering, Inspire, Personal, Listening.
An ELID workshop participant writes keywords important to their community and self-advocacy work on a white board.

By setting unrealistic goals, teams can do more harm than good, so it’s important to identify the scope of engagement and potential for impact. In our case, we recognized that adults with IDDs are imaginative, creative, and artistic, but are often limited to analog tools like paper and paints due to their lack of tech access and knowledge. That limitation can prevent them from bringing their thoughts and creativity to a wider audience and using art as a form of self-expression. For SfO, Express was a great tool—it’s web-accessible, templatized, and beginner-friendly—but at the start, we weren’t sure whether it would meet their needs and provide the intuitive experience they were seeking without potential stressors. With reciprocity in mind, the collaboration with SfO gave them access to the tech and training on a new tool while giving the Product Equity team feedback to make Express neuro-cognitive and IDD access-centered.

A photograh of twelve people seated at two long conference tables. Their backs are to the camera facing a speaker at the front of the room. Each person has an oen laptop in front of them and there are to large monitors hanging on the wall at the front of the room.
A group of ELID workshop participants and their supporting advisors in an Express training delivered by an expert facilitator.

2. Domain expertise matters: Bringing stakeholders together

For a successful co-creation session, multiple stakeholders need to come together and contribute their expertise. It's essential to consider both internal and external stakeholders for these exercises. While not everyone in your company will have experience engaging with marginalized communities, they can provide valuable domain expertise in design, project management, research, engineering, etc. To create an ecosystem where community experience and research can thrive, equity practitioners must educate stakeholders on disability and intersectional identities. It helps them apply an equitable lens to their expertise.

While not everyone in your company may have experience engaging with marginalized communities, they can provide valuable domain expertise in design, project management, research, engineering, etc.

Include product team members in workshop design, experience, and facilitation to help them make direct observations and uncover needs from their domain expertise. Involving stakeholders in decision-making and asking them to help identify challenges that may arise during the session can reduce points of failure and increase buy-in. For example, instead of outlining details of accommodations we needed, we shared participant needs and our knowledge about IDDs with Adobe’s site facilities team, and they leveraged their existing expertise to tailor the workshop.

3. Work with your community to tailor workshops

Every workshop designed for a specific community will require unique approaches but there are considerations and best practices for making learning content accessible:

A zoomed-out view of twenty instructional cards (organized in four rows of five). The type is too small to read but the graphics are engaging, the information is clear, and the colors are vibrant.
We designed and printed a set of instruction cards to minimize cognitive burden to participants and to offer multiple ways for people to learn from and contribute to the workshop.

4. Create a learning space that centers the needs of the community

Careful planning and consideration are essential to effectively activate learning mindsets, reduce participation burdens, and minimize stressors and triggers. Arrange meetings in advance with supporters or caregivers to understand necessary accommodations. Select a convenient time and location for the event and consider offering transportation services. Help ensure both physical and cognitive access by:

For cognitive access, reduce environmental stressors and establish clear expectations to minimize cognitive load. Consider diverse learning patterns, short attention spans, difficulty remembering complex information, and overstimulation from large groups. Create separate break rooms, offer frequent snack and meal breaks, arrange tables in groups of four to foster conversation, prepare laptops with individual files in advance, and select a well-ventilated room with ample natural light.

A photograph of a well-lit room, with wall-to-wall windows, wood floors, a small kitchen with a bar-height counter, and a large open space with four square tables (each with four people seated and eating).
ELID workshop participants eating lunch and exchanging ideas in a break room at Adobe’s Denver, Colorado, office.

5. Celebrate the wins, create space for feedback, and plan for continued support

Participate, observe, support, and engage with workshop participants to understand hidden needs that interviews may not reveal. Create space for participants to share feedback, reflect on their experience, and take stock of learnings and challenges. At the end of our workshop, we held a small award ceremony to celebrate accomplishments and to discuss with participants how they felt about the experience (these also offered an opportunity to identify challenges with products and learning materials).

Two photographs. Top: Two women and a man (giving a thumbs up) are all sitting at a confernce table with notebooks and a laptop in front of them. Bottom: A man and a woman seated at a conference table are talking with a laptop computer and a notebook in front of them.
Product Equity’s Annika Muehlbradt (top middle) and Akshita Goyal (bottom right) work with ELID participants, and an advisor (top left) to learn Express. Advisors supported participants by learning alongside them to enable future support.

A successful co-creation experience is one that continues to center the community through sustainable relationships. To achieve that:

Co-creation can be nuanced but with some hard-and-fast guidelines

One of the reasons this work requires patience, and a sustained commitment is so it can capture the nuance of intersectional identities over time. Equity practitioners must acknowledge and regularly identify who is included and who is missing from the co-creation process.

Although we sought to include diverse intersectional perspectives in our work, we didn’t have the chance to hear from people of color or people originating from countries outside the US. And, since it’s personal information that some may have felt uncomfortable sharing, we also chose not to ask about sexual orientation or mental health status. However, since IDDs affect cognitive and physical abilities influencing human differences, we included formal education, age, and past tech experience.

Two charts. On the left, a wheel with Power at the center with four concentric rings surrounding it, each divided into 12 labeled sections with pink and purple dots grouped in multiple sections. Outermost ring (clockwise from 12): Skin Colour, Formal Education, Ability, Sexuality, Neurodiversity, Mental Health, Appearance, Housing, Wealth, Language, Gender, Citizenship. Third ring from center (clockwise from 12): Dark, Elementary Education, Significant Disability, Lesbian/Bi/Pan/Asexual, Significant Neurodivergnce, Vulnerable, Unattractive, Homeless, Poor, Non-English/Monolingual, Trans/Intersex/Non-binary, Undocumented. Second ring from center (clockwise from 12): Different Shades, Highschool Education, Some Disability, Gay Men, Some Neurodivergence, Mostly Stable, Average, Sheltered/Renting, Middle-class, Learned English, Cisgender Woman, Documented. Innermost ring (clockwise from 12): White, Post-secondary, Able-bodied, Heterosexual, Neurotypical, Robust, Attractive, Owns Property, Rich, English, Cisgender Man, Citizen. On the right, a chart titled ELID Participant Demographics. Under the heading, a purple dot next to Partcipants with IDD and a pink dot next to Participating Advisors. An Age line marked in increments from Under 20, 20 - 40, 40 -60, 60+ with purple and pink dots placed along it. A Technology Experience line marked Novice (far left) and Proficient (far right) with purple and pink dots placed along it.
ELID participant demographics mapped on Slyvia Duckworth’s ”Wheel of Power/Privilege,” adapted from Canadian Council for Refugees, alongside two scales mapping participant and advisor ages and their experience with technology. (The ”Wheel of Power/Privilege” has been adapted for multiple contexts and is available by license, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International.)

Although community-driven design and research engagements can be unique and nuanced, our experience uncovered some absolute takeaways:

Things to do

Things not to do

Co-creation takes time, so patience is key. Our Product Equity team mantra is to work at the speed of trust, and the pace of reciprocity, fueled with good health. The outcome will be an abundance of valuable information that will contribute to a world where everyone, regardless of human difference, can access and harness the power of digital products without harm, bias, or limitation.

Thank you to the members of Speaking for Ourselves, who took part in our workshop. The ideas and viewpoints you shared with us continue to motivate and shape our efforts as we work toward creating more equitable product experiences through co-creation. Thank you also to our two wonderful workshop facilitators, Kaley Day and Katie Fielding, who inspired engaging discussions and shared their expertise in inclusive learning, and to the Express Design and Learn and Adobe Design Ops teams for their support in putting on this workshop.

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