Participatory Design is a wide-ranging concept covering a wide variety of design methods. It is an approach to design that emphasizes the role of the users in designing products they will ultimately use.
At its core participatory design seeks to include all the major stakeholders, but especially the ultimate users, in as many aspects of the design process as possible. The users are most involved during the innovation stage, where the users directly engage with the designers in coming up with new ideas and refining old ones. The users might not have the expertise or technical knowledge to be directly engaged with whatever is being developed, but help evaluate iterations of the design.Participatory design grew out of the labor union movement and is general influenced by more left-leaning principles. It has a great focus on user empowerment and seeks to engage communities to create designs more appropriate for their needs.
This is a famous map by Liz Sanders showing various design outlooks and where they land in relation to two pairs of contrasted concepts. On the left is the ‘Expert Mindset,’ here the users are treated more like lab rats and merely give feedback to the designers. This is paired with the ‘Participatory Mindset’ on the right, which is dominated entirely by Participatory Design, encompassing both ends of the other contrasted pair — Design and Research-Led perspectives.Participatory design is often contrasted with User-Centered Design. In user-centered design data is collected about users, products are designed for them (with them in mind) and tested by them.
Criticisms have come at Participatory Design from a number of angles. Among the most prominent is that the designer is practically removed from the innovation stage. In some Participatory Design methods the designer becomes more of a facilitator, rather than an active participant.A major problem is finding out who your users are. You might be involving a completely irrelevant group in the design process.Other criticisms focus on the level of democracy and questions of expertise. Do we really want airplane users designing airplanes? Another danger comes from too great a focus on the user and not enough on the process or utility. For example, if you’re designing a knife you may make it extremely comfortable and safe to use, but neglect to actually make it sharp.
All these example method can be found in full form at www.hcdconnect.org. Extremes and Mainstreams: This is a method for selecting a group of users to help your design project. It involves selecting a range of indivduals to participate, rather than letting one view dominate. This might sound like commonsense, but it’s easy to forget to include as many views and outlooks as possible. For example, if you are creating a technology tool, you’ll want to include both the computer literate and those with poor skills.Storytelling and Extracting Key Insights: This is used during evaluation or during the innovation stage to improve upon an already existing item. Users tell their personal story and history with the item — how they’ve used it, what they like, what they want, etc. The other users listen and write down the “key points.” Points from different stories are then grouped into related subsets and from these subsets overarching truths about the nature of your product can be extracted.Empathic Design involves placing yourself and your design team in the shoes of the users. Here you try to see the world from their viewpoint and engage with the product in a new light. The idea is to develop an empathy for your users. By gaining this empathy a designer can approach the product from the standpoint of a user with the expertise of a designer.
Participatory Design Principles• Attempts to involve the “users” throughout the design development process• Direct involvement in the innovation stage• Aid in evaluation during the development stage• Not a specific design style, focus on the process and who is involved• Grew out of work done by Scandinavian labor unions• Used in a wide variety of fields
Sander’s MapSanders, Liz. "An Evolving Map of Design Practice and Design Research." Interactions 15.6(2008): 13-17.
Criticisms• Removes designer from the process• Discounts ‘expert’ views and advice in favor of the ultimate users• Do we really know our users?• Should everyday people be involved in design?• Danger of focusing too much on the user’s needs and not enough on the design
Examples of Participatory Methods• Extremes and Mainstreams• Storytelling & Extracting Key Insights• Empathic Design