Participatory Design! | MIT Center for Civic Media

Participatory Design!

This week in Co-Design I'm looking at the field of Participatory Design. Participatory Design has a much more establish history than most of the other sub-genres of co-design I've been looking at. It had its start in Scandinavia in the 1970's, emerging from trade union movements. It shares an ideological lineage with Sociotechnical Design and Action research. Initially, the goal of Participatory Design was to shift the stance of technology from one which inherently favored management and entrenched power structures to one which favored and worked with the workers. Given the theory's avowedly political beginnings, a good question to keep in mind as we continue to think about participatory is whether or not it has kept its ideological commitment to the democratization of technology since its conception. In order to be called "participatory design," must a project undertake the political goals of the theory's founders? Is this political stance what is necessary to differentiate it from other theories of co-design?

We'll start with a review of the design processes of the VozMob project. VozMob is a joint project by the University of Southern California and the Center for Popular Education to build a mobile blogging platform to serve immigrant workers in southern California ( VozMob's participatory design philosophy was itself heavily informed by the popular education movement, which emphasizes horizontal communication structures and the co-production of knowledge over top-down structures. Melissa Brough, Charlottle Lapsansky, Carmen Gonzalez, and Francois Bar examined the design processes used in the development of the project and how they were received by the community partners in their paper, "Participatory Design of Mobile Platforms for Social Justice? Learning from the Case of Mobile Voices"

The central priorities of the VozMob participatory design process were to foster a sense of ownership over the platform amongst the community partners, enable those community partners to exert control over the platform, and encourage participation by the community in the design process and the resultant blogging community.

The VozMob project incorporated a core group of 8 community members into the design process. These individuals attended weekly meetings and later acted as facilitators, bringing other members of the community into the projects as it grew. These community members were able to actively engage in iterative design processes as they occurred in face to face meetings, but their participation in many of the computer-mediated processes was hampered by issues of access and different knowledge and skills levels. As a result, it was difficult for community members to communicate directly with the platform developers. The lack of control they felt over the technological aspects of the project, however, was balanced by a strong sense of control over the graphical aspects of the project, both in its web form and printed distribution platform (a printed newspaper incorporating the blog content).

Issues brought to the for by the VozMob case study are the problems of mediating across skill and knowledge differentials and the need for facilitators to bridge that divide. The authors also bring into their analysis the question of the relationship between "appropriation" practices and participatory design practices.

The VozMob project consciously undertook to adhere to the democratizing ideals of participatory design. However, not all projects that fly the participatory design flag undertake to do so. R. Darin Ellis and Sri H. Kurniawan's case study, "Increasing the Usability of Online Information for Older Users," represent a middle ground in this sense. The authors tip their hat to partitipatory design political history, but do not take the care to situate their project within its ideology map that the VozMob designers did. Rather, Ellis and Kurniawan present a less-aggressive version of the participatory design philosophy, centering it around improving the quality of life, collaboration and cooperation, and iterative design processes, in contrast to the philosophy's original goals of reversing the power structures inherent in technology.

Before beginning their design process, Ellis and Kurniawan describe the design team undertaking an extensive lit review and conducting a survey to increase their awareness of issues faced by older users when navigating the web. This is done to replace more avowedly participatory design techniques such as shadowing, because "finding seniors who were actively using the WWW to seek out service information proved very difficult." As a result, the designers had already formulated what would be the core issues examined in the study before their community partners arrived.

One interesting tool mentioned in the case study is that of "cooperative prototyping," or the dynamic building and iterating of a web page's design in real time on a large screen. This is similar to other models of low cost or quick prototyping.

There is an active body of literature on the theory of participatory design, and I will highlight two articles here. The first is Michael J. Muller's "Participatory Design: The Third Space in HCI." Muller has written extensively on participatory design in the field of software development. In this chapter, he presents the idea that participatory design embodies a "third space" between the interests of users and designers, "a fertile environment in which participants can combine diverse knowledges into new insights and plans for action, to inform the needs of their organizations, institutions, products, and services." He covers topics from the comparative value of research and workshop location (either in the work environment of the subjects or the design space of the development team), to the value of story-telling, games, and acted-out dramas in the participatory design process. He also emphasizes the importance of quick and low tech prototyping to the iterative process.

Another interesting theoretical paper, in Jonathan Grudin and John Pruitt's "Personas, Participatory Design and Product Development: An Infrastructure for Engagement," which explores the use of "personas" in the participatory design process. A "persona" is a constructed, fictitious person created to populate and inform potential design scenarios. While this would seem to empower designers to embody their assumptions about a community in their design process, and thus shut the community out, Grundin and Pruitt strongly argue for the use of generative personas in conjunction with community oriented research. It's apparent that personas of use primarily in products intended for a mass audience, for whom it is difficult to locate "representative" individuals. Whether or not the persona process still constitutes "participatory design," however, remains up for discussion.

After all this, I still have unanswered questions about how much the political ideology of participatory design should define the process. If you have thoughts on this topic, or anything else about participatory design, please chime in in the comments!

Works Cited

Muller, M. J. Participatory design: The third space in HCI. In J. A. Jacko and A. Sears (Eds.), The Human Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, Evolving Technologies and Emerging Applications, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 2002, 1051–1068.
Grudin, J. & Pruitt, J. Personas, participatory design, and product development: An infrastructure for engagement. Proc. PDC 2002, 144-161.
Ellis, R. Darin, Kurniawan, Sri H. Increasing the Usability of Online Information for Older Users: A Case Study in Participatory Design. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction 12(2), 268-276 (2000)

Brough, Melissa; Lapsansky, Charlotte; Gonzalez, Carmen; Bar, Francois. Participatory Design of Mobile Platforms for Social Justice? Learning from the Case of Mobile Voices. Prezi available here: