Participatory Design

What is it?

Participatory Design is a broad label for creative activities that are done with end users—where designers act as facilitators or visual translators for people who may not be skilled or confident in idea expression. The activities can take many forms, but the most common ones use visual and semantic tools—such as stickers, blocks of words, or ambiguous shapes—to offer expression to nondesigners. Participants are prompted to use these tools to create their own interfaces, products, services or systems. After creating these artifacts, participants answer the designer's questions about what they've made, to identify their creative intent. Participants also may begin to articulate their feelings about specific visual or semantic qualities.

How do I do it?

First, recruit your participants. Target those who represent your target audience—people who will actually use your service, system, or product once it's created. Schedule 60- to 90-minute meetings for the actual session, and encourage participation by meeting with two or three people at a time. Be sure you have a dedicated place for them to work, but consider that the place can be where your participants feel comfortable (their homes or businesses), rather than where you feel comfortable.

Next, create a toolkit of visual stimuli, such as shapes, pictures, or symbols; they don't have to relate to the design context. Assemble 50 to 100 visuals, with each printed on its own piece of paper. Visuals often are iconic forms such as phones, coffee makers, automobiles, or chairs. They also include characters expressing emotions, such as happiness, sadness, frustration, and confusion. The visuals may also include images of environments, such as parks or offices; shapes, such as circles, squares, or triangles; textures, such as grittiness; or materials, such as rubber or metal. The only directive in creating the visual stimuli is to encompass a broad array of images that can evoke various emotional reactions.

Also assemble parts, related to the form and material of your design direction. For example, if you are designing software for an iPhone, you would gather iPhone interface elements, such as buttons, inputs, and other controls. If you are designing a physical tool, assemble handles, grips, and other physical elements that might be appropriate for the tool design. Choose pieces and parts that are appropriate to the intended platform or medium. If the design team is open to a broad range of media, include a variety of parts.

Include an array of creative raw materials, such as clay, pens, pencils, string, and other physical objects that can be used to represent ideas.

During your participatory design session, ask the participants to use your toolkit materials to visualize their ideas; then provoke them with specific requests related to your topic. For example, if you are trying to understand the relationship between lower-income households and food purchasing, you might ask the participants to pick images that best represent their feelings about food, food preparation, food purchasing, or eating. Or you might ask them to create their ideal kitchen, using kitchen parts (appliances, cabinets, counter-tops) and raw materials.

As participants build their ideas, try not to disrupt them, but do encourage them if they become shy. Many people will need verbal affirmation to get started, and you might work alongside them so they can see how to go about the exercise. You might need to ask them questions as they work, like "Why are you adding that?" or "What does that shape represent to you?"

Once they've completed an exercise, ask them to explain their design to you. Ask open-ended questions to understand the various details created and choices made. Be curious, but objective, avoiding evaluative statements, such as "That's excellent!" or "That would never work."

When should I use it?

Run a participatory design session when you want to better understand how people think about a given problem, discipline, technology, or aspect of culture. The method can give clear insight into their vocabulary, their priorities, and the things they value. The method can be particularly useful in contexts that are hard to observe, such as things that are private, culturally sensitive, infrequent, or expensive. And because the creation of ideas can be less threatening than an interview about practices, the method can also be useful in situations that are politically charged or that have a particularly obvious power relationship at play. For example, if you are working with the victims of domestic abuse, creating a model of an ideal living space can be more fruitful than conducting an interview about the pros and cons of shared living space.

What is the output, and how can I use it?

Participatory design may result in video, photographs, transcriptions, and artifacts. The method doesn't dictate what to build, so you can expect the resulting artifacts to be low-fidelity, messy, and incomplete. But the output of these sessions can provide valuable insight into priorities and can motivate strategic design decisions and directional alignment. You can position this output in various stakeholder-facing media to argue for a particular direction.

Where can I learn more?

Read Liz Sanders' papers on her website,

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