Jax Wechsler

Thinking About Participatory Design Research : Part 1

Participatory Design (PD) has it’s beginnings in Scandinavia in the 70’s where there was a movement by academics and trade unionists to involve users in the design of the applications that were being designed to assist their work. It aimed to prevent workers from being dis-empowered by the tools and computer technologies imposed on them by their employers. PD provided a way to collaboratively develop technology engaging people in the designs that affect them. Whilst some say it has it’s foundations in Marxist philosophies, I would argue that it also provides a valuable approach to design for commercial organisations today. I also believe that it is very useful for the exploration of new and innovative products, technologies and services, particularly within the emerging design fields of Interaction Design and Service Design.

Participatory design (PD) can be defined as:

“an approach to design that attempts to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g. employees, partners, customers, citizens, end users) in the design process to help ensure that the product designed meets their needs and is usable”
SRC: Wikipedia

PD can be used as a design research approach to help uncover the tacit and latent knowledge and needs of users i.e. knowledge that is implicit, non-tangible and hard to empirically measure. It can help provide another layer of understanding in relation to a persons journey with a product or service than merely a task analysis could. It is particularly useful for understanding and designing interactions over time and is used widely by Service Designers to help identify opportunities for delight and the identification of potential pain points. It is through the undertaking of design activities that cognitive, emotional, and aspirational information can be layered upon an individuals’ journey or scenario as a mechanism for research to inform design.

I have used this technique within design research, whereby I have asked individuals and groups to complete a story board describing a process that they may have undergone recently, for example purchasing a new mobile phone. They are given magazine cuttings and other craft materials to assist them with this activity. This creative activity can help the communication of tacit knowledge, i.e. experiential, emotional and aspirational factors that may not emerge in a verbal account of an experience which tend to be very action and task oriented. Participants are then asked to describe their collaged story-boards, and it is usually interesting to notice all the experiential details that their constructed visual map evokes.

I usually video these sessions and play them back to the visual designers to accompany the artifact that was produced by the participant. I have seen this method used too in group workshops whereby groups explore defined scenarios from the perspectives of key personas. This activity is particularly great for stakeholders who are forced to think outside their usual frame of reference and consider the service or product from their customers’ perspectives. It can also be really effective to have a mixed group of designers, users, and stakeholders involved in a workshop where the activity is done in small representative groups and participants can bounce their ideas off each other resulting in some very interesting discussions and debates.

There is a great article about this on Boxes and Arrows called Making Emotional Connections Through Participatory Design. Interestingly at the bottom of this article I noticed that there was a comment made by Liz Sanders (who is an influential and inspiring thinker about this topic…more about what Liz thinks in a future post) stating that she would use the term “participatory design research” instead of “participatory design” as it needs to be clear that the users are not involved in the design, and that the design is done as an exploratative research activity.
Liz is also interested in design-led research approaches and the use of generative tools to innovate, design the future, and help solve “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber, 1973). ‘Wicked Problems’ is a term that is used to describe problems that are complex and difficult to solve such as environmental issues. They are problems that are ill-defined which occur at the “fuzzy front end” of the design and innovation process. (This leaks into another topic I will write about shortly looking at how ‘design thinking‘ is being posited as a tool for social innovation and for solving wicked global problems). Liz discusses that the boundary between design and research are merging at the front end of design through the growth of co-design and co-creation activities, and that the role of the designer needs to consequently change.

You can find some presentation videos and some papers Liz has authored in relation to the use of PD or “co-creation” and “co-design” at her site Make Tools.

Below you will find some other PD activity ideas that you may be interested in trying at your organisation:

> Collaborative card sorting

> Design the box – great collaborative exercise for defining a UX vision

> Collage

> Context mapping

> Story-boarding

> Affinity diagramming

> The break up letter (from Smart Design) – This one involves users writing a break up letter about a product or service. It is less design oriented but I thought that it was an interesting design research technique which helps uncover experiential tacit factors.

Experience mappingUse of touch-point cards
A financial organisation in Sydney have designed some cards based on this work.
See a video about this at Sydneys’ Service Design Drinks.

Other Related Resources and Tools

> Lots of co-design tools here for Service Design

> Great presentation by Liz Sanders from Adaptive Paths UX Week : Designing with your users

> Liz Sanders video – Co-creation and the new landscape of design at IIT Design Research Conference

> Book: Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play by Luke Hohmann

> Tool: Think Cubes by http://www.metamemes.com/
200 cards for inspiration to help facilitate creativity including some ideation activities

> SILK Method deck

> Mental notes cards by Stephen Anderson can be useful when considering user experience within workshops

I hope you have found this post informative and would love you to comment if you have any thoughts, experience, or resources that may be relevant to this topic. I am hoping to write more about Participatory Design games shortly after I have read my new book “Game-storming: A playbook for innovators, rulebreakers, and changemakers” by Gray, D., Brown, S., and Macanufo, J.

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