Skip to content
Field Reports

Project Ara: Co-creation Research at Scale

Talking dscout and participatory design with the original design chief of Google's Project Ara.

Words by Kari Dean McCarthy, Visuals by Matt Collander

Google’s Project Ara, the modular phone that reimagines the nature and lifecycle of mobile devices, was finally scheduled to make its appearance this year (....or not). For media and consumers, it’s news. For dscout, it’s a memorable story of participatory design.

We recently interviewed Dan Makoski, Ara’s original design chief and most devoted fan, about his lifelong mission to bring users into the design research process. Here’s what he had to say about teaming up with dscout on this worldwide co-creation research project.

How was Project Ara research with dscout different than other co-design projects you’ve led?

Project Ara is co-creation at a ridiculous scale. It’s 17,000 people around the world using dscout. Participants were doing monthly projects — everything from role-playing what a modular phone experience could be like, to building and prototyping their own phone using cardboard, or paper, or whatever materials they had.

We even had them measure the width and height of their creations, so we had 34,000 measurements informing the actual engineering decision around the size of the frame we would create. That’s another example of where co-creation is not just some creative, fuzzy, front-end thing. The dscout missions actually helped us determine one of the most fundamental, left-brain, engineering things: the dimensions of the phone.

What made you decide you could execute co-creation research with tens of thousands of people?

We began by doing a road trip across the country, hosting hack-a-thons with modular Motorola phones, and we were just blown away by the inventiveness and creativity of young people when they were given a platform to create their own hardware. That’s why we created Project Ara. Co-creation was a tool for getting their insights on our consumer products.

Co-creation is also starting to emerge as more than a method of research. It’s a way of creating experiences and products, of creating customized things — whether that’s NIKEiD or Project Ara — where you get to determine the price, size and functionality of your phone.

After we did that trip, we said “We want to continue this dialog.” We didn’t want to just say, “We’ve done all this co-creation research, and now we’re going to make something.” Instead, we said, “Let’s invite anyone in the world who’s interested to tell us what they want Project Ara to be.”

Was this the first time you’d done co-creation on an international level?

A lot of the co-creation stuff I’d been familiar with in the past was when you’re making one-on-one connections in person with people. It’s typically more qualitative and smaller scale. What I liked about dscout was that anyone who had an interest and a smartphone could participate. You could be in Indonesia, and you could just download the dscout app and all of a sudden be part of the conversation.

Dscout was good for scale. We were a little bit unprepared for the response, and actually dscout was, too. In the first 72 hours after posting an open invitation for anyone to join that study, we had thousands of people jumping in. We had tens of thousands of posts.

Right after we announced what we were doing, I had to call the CEO of dscout in the middle of the night. I guess the AWS cluster that dscout was using went down, because it was overloaded. It was just crazy. It helped dscout really push the limits of their platform at scale. And it helped show both Google and dscout the power of doing broader, large-scale, global, high-volume co-creation.

That’s fantastic. Anything else memorable from that project?

We also said that if you send us your prototypes, you’d get bonus points. I remember it was just after the holidays, and I was coming back after the break. The mailroom was like, “You better watch out when you go to your desk.” It was piled with packages of phones from around the world.

They were made out of metal, erector sets, foam board, cardboard and clay. It was just fascinating to get that kind of response. We ended up split-screening a gallery space. We had over a hundred prototypes from around the world. The team would just walk by for inspiration, like, “Why did this person put this radio here?”

Besides receiving a stunning array of visuals, what findings or analysis stood out for you?

With so many people, we were able to have pretty deep analytics. We knew even before we started shipping our first units that teenagers around the world, in high school and just getting into college, were our most enthusiastic supporters. We had all these hypotheses about why. Maybe because it’s a life stage where you’re starting to break away and become independent, getting a phone that is really unique and independent really makes sense.

So we knew how many people were using what platform, and we knew how old each person’ device was. All of a sudden, we had all of these rich, deep data analytics that you typically don’t get with co-creation.

The other really interesting thing was it even helped us make marketing decisions. One of the strategic decisions we made early on was that we were going to focus Project Ara on being a phone for the next couple billion smartphone users — people getting their first smartphone. Partly that was due to all the data analytics we had about where we thought it would have the most potential. Every one of those studies helped the team make decisions about what to build, what to design, and how to market it. It was pretty awesome.

Mobile research is fast and long-distance, and you don’t really know the people. How do you go about the process of sensitizing or breaking down barriers?

It’s a little bit challenging, right? Because you don’t have that connection. But there’s a fantastic aspect of dscout called a social mission, where all the contributions from scouts on that mission can be visible to all the scouts.

It created a little bit more of that sense of community that we were missing by not being there in person. Scouts created their own communities with each other and started to encourage each other with their ideas.

We used all the various “likes” and conversations and comments in the social missions as a way to focus on the most engaging topics when we were getting tens of thousands of posts. We actually used that as a way to filter our research.

You’ve spoken before about society being at the beginning of a “revolution,” where businesses and individuals are going to start to create products and experiences that allow for human creativity to flourish. Where can, or does, research play into that?

Project Ara is one example of that. It’s not Google determining the right size for the phone, the right functionality of the phone, and the right price — it’s you. People would tweet me all the time, “How much is Project Ara going to cost?” I would tweet back, “You get to go choose.” People would be like, “What do you mean?!” It’s a totally different mindset.

Our homes, the stuff that we surround our lives with, our objects, the kind of relationships we build, the kind of experiences we have — companies of the future are going to have to raise a very different mentality of how they’re supporting human beings. dscout is not just another tool to create another industrialized object. I think dscout is an example of a tool that actually gets at a different way of thinking about value in the world.

Have questions about using dscout for research? Let's talk!

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest