Discover participatory design methods and how you can co-create and co-design with users for exceptional digital products and services. Learn practical methods and tips!
We live in the increasingly user-centric digital world – regardless of the rise of the machines and AI. And there’s one method that has been consistently transforming how we design and develop products: Participatory Design (PD).
At its core, PD brings users into the heart of the design process, creating solutions that not only solve problems but do so in a way that resonates with the users themselves. We wrote about participatory design, its history and values in great detail. You should really check it out, especially if this is your first time seriously considering this approach. It’s lengthy, but well-worth your time.
What’s in this blog post?
In this blog post, we are going to take a next step and we will discuss different participatory design methods. Whether you’re a seasoned veteran in product development or just beginning your journey, this comprehensive guide will offer you valuable insights and practical knowledge.
When I first embarked on my journey in digital product design and development, I was captivated by the plethora of design and development methodologies out there. Yet, among these, Participatory Design struck a chord with me. It was not just about creating solutions; it was about creating solutions with people, not just for them. Over the years, working with organizations both large, like the WEF, T-Mobile or Microsoft, and small, I’ve seen the transformative power of PD. The solutions we’ve co-created with users have not only met their needs but also exceeded their expectations, setting new standards for user experience.
In this post, we’ll take a look at key participatory design methods, give you simple check-lists and a list of DO’s and DON’Ts for key methods we explore. After that, I’ll share with you five key, evergreen, tips for a successful implementation of participatory design methods. And, lastly, we’ll explore how to measure the effectiveness of these methods through some typical KPIs.
After all, what kind of a data-informed digital product design and development agency would Point Jupiter be if we wouldn’t do that, right?
Participatory design methods
Participatory Design (PD) is an expansive universe of its methods. Below, we look into these methods in detail, providing comprehensive introductions and anecdotes from our professional experiences. Our mini checklists and DOs and DON’Ts for each method will serve as practical guides for your own journey through PD.
We will discuss the following participatory design methods:
- Surveys and interviews
- Scenarios and storytelling
- User journey mapping
- Contextual inquiry
Workshops are a vibrant forum for stakeholders – users, designers, and business leaders – to pool their collective intellect and co-create solutions. A melting pot of ideas and experiences, workshops embody the true spirit of PD, allowing for interactive idea exchange and fostering a shared understanding of problems and potential solutions.
Recalling a workshop we facilitated for a client in the educational sector, the room (a physical one, right after the worst part of the pandemic was behind us) was a symphony of voices, opinions, and ideas. Amidst this organized chaos, a common theme began to emerge, a thread that we wove into the fabric of our design. This underscores the core essence of workshops – a platform for shared creativity and innovation.
Essentially, workshops assemble different stakeholders, including users, designers, and business leaders, to co-create solutions. They provide a platform for interactive idea exchange, fostering a shared understanding of problems and potential solutions.
- Identify the participants.
- Prepare a well-structured agenda.
- Set clear goals for the workshop.
- Prepare necessary materials/tools for the workshop.
DOs and DON’Ts
- DO create an open and inclusive atmosphere to encourage participation.
- DO ensure the workshop is facilitated by a skilled moderator.
- DON’T exclude any stakeholder groups from the workshop.
- DON’T let a few voices dominate the discussion.
Surveys and interviews
Surveys and interviews are the tools of the modern-day Sherlock Holmes in every designer. They are instrumental in uncovering the deeply held needs, pain points, and motivations of users. By enabling designers to probe into the minds of users, these methods gather invaluable in-depth qualitative and quantitative data.
During a project with a local government, our team conducted a series of intensive interviews with users. While on the surface, their needs seemed straightforward, deeper conversations unveiled a complex web of latent needs and expectations. The insights gathered were akin to a gold mine of information, directly shaping our design strategies.
Surveys and interviews are invaluable for gathering in-depth qualitative and quantitative data. They enable you to probe into the minds of users, uncovering their needs, pain points, and motivations.
- Define the objectives of the survey/interview.
- Design questions that align with your objectives.
- Select your sample group.
- Conduct the survey/interview and analyze the responses.
DOs and DON’Ts
- DO ask open-ended questions to gather rich, qualitative data.
- DO pilot your survey or interview script to ensure clarity and effectiveness.
- DON’T make assumptions based on a small sample group.
- DON’T ignore outliers in your data – they could provide valuable insights.
Prototyping is where the abstract ideas gleaned from workshops, interviews, and surveys assume a tangible form. It’s akin to the rehearsal before the main performance, where users interact with a physical manifestation of the product and provide feedback.
In almost all of our projects, the prototyping stage was where our assumptions were put to the test. Sometimes, a feature that we believed would be a game-changer was received with less enthusiasm than expected. This feedback enabled us to pivot early, refining our design in line with actual user needs.
- Define the features/functions to be prototyped.
- Choose the appropriate fidelity for the prototype.
- Build the prototype.
- Conduct user testing and gather feedback.
DOs and DON’Ts
- DO involve users in the prototyping process.
- DO accept negative feedback gracefully – it’s an opportunity for improvement.
- DON’T become too attached to your first prototype.
- DON’T ignore minor issues, they can grow into major problems down the line.
- DON’T spend much time over pedantic issues
Scenarios and storytelling
Scenarios and storytelling are the magic carpet that carries designers into the world of users. By crafting and analyzing realistic user scenarios, designers can empathize with the user experience more deeply and design products that truly resonate with the user.
In a series of engagements with a local government, we created a series of user scenarios to inform the design of an AI-powered integrated public service. This narrative approach helped us understand the diversity of the user base, prompting us to incorporate features catering to a wider range of needs.
- Define your user personas.
- Craft plausible scenarios based on these personas.
- Analyze these scenarios for insights into user behavior and preferences.
- Apply these insights to your design.
DOs and DON’Ts
- DO create diverse personas that represent a broad spectrum of users.
- DO ensure scenarios are realistic and grounded in user data.
- DO ask valuable questions. Here’s an article about best questions to ask during a usability testing with real users.
- DON’T base scenarios on assumptions. Use real-world data whenever you can.
- DON’T overlook the emotional aspects of the user journey.
User journey mapping
User Journey Mapping is akin to aerial photography. By visualizing the user’s interactions with the product from a bird’s eye view, designers can identify potential pain points and areas of delight across the user journey. This comprehensive overview enables designers to craft a seamless and enjoyable user experience.
In a project for a national, leading e-learning platform, we mapped out the entire user journey, from landing on the site to achieving a certain educational outcome. This detailed map guided our redesign efforts, focusing on enhancing the user experience at each touchpoint.
User journey mapping visualizes the user’s interactions with the product from start to finish, highlighting both pain points and areas of delight.
- Define your user personas – you can use the same or similar ones you used for scenarios testing.
- List the touchpoints between the user and the product or a service.
- Chart out the user’s journey through these touchpoints.
- Analyze the journey for areas of improvement or innovation.
DOs and DONT’s:
- DO include both emotional and functional aspects in your journey map.
- DO validate the journey map with actual users.
- DON’T assume you know how users feel – always rely on user feedback.
- DON’T skip touchpoints, even if they seem insignificant.
Contextual inquiry is the practice of observing users in their natural environment, akin to an anthropologist studying a culture. This method provides first-hand insights into real-world user behavior, unveiling the subtle and often overlooked aspects of user interaction with a product.
Once, while revamping a complex front-office sales frontend for a major European telecom company, we spent days observing both salespeople using the system, and the outcomes of those interactions. These observations helped us identify several usability issues that were negatively impacting the user (salesperson?) experience.
Contextual inquiry involves observing users in their natural environment as they interact with a product or service, providing first-hand insights into real-world user behavior.
- Identify the user group and context for the inquiry.
- Observe users interacting with the product in their natural environment.
- Take detailed notes or recordings.
- Analyze these observations for actionable insights.
DOs and DONT’s
- DO respect the user’s space and privacy during observations.
- DO be patient – valuable insights often emerge over time.
- DON’T influence or interrupt the user’s behavior during the observation.
- DON’T ignore environmental factors that might influence user behavior.
Implementing participatory design methods
Each Participatory Design method brings unique strengths to the table. The key lies in understanding when and how to deploy these methods to their fullest potential, always keeping the end goal in sight – creating a design that not only meets but exceeds user expectations.
In this section, I’ll guide you through tried-and-tested methods and general, evergreen things to keep in mind when implementing participatory design methods. Keep in mind that, each method has its own intricacies, but these general principles will work for all of them.
I’ll also show you how to consider balancing design expertise and your experience with user input, and, lastly, show you how to deal with challenges you might encounter while using some of the participatory design methods.
Five general, evergreen principles
Define your objectives
Clear objectives guide the selection and implementation of PD methods. Are you trying to identify user needs? Test a prototype? Get feedback on an existing product? Your objectives will guide your strategy and the selection of method(s) you might want to use. Yes – not only that you can – in fact, you should employ more than just one method when it makes sense.
Let’s assume you’re developing a new fitness app. Your objective might be to understand how your users integrate physical exercise into their daily routine, their motivational drivers, and the pain points they experience with current fitness apps. You might then aim to employ participatory design methods to obtain insights into these areas.
Choose appropriate methods
As we’ve outlined earlier, there are many PD methods, from workshops and interviews to prototyping and contextual inquiry. Your choice of method(s) should align with your objectives and the resources at your disposal. For instance, if you need to gather in-depth qualitative data on user needs and preferences, surveys and interviews might be your best bet. Alternatively, if you need feedback on a tangible product, prototyping would be a good choice.
With your defined objectives, you might decide to conduct user interviews and surveys to gather in-depth qualitative data on user needs and preferences. To get more realistic feedback, you also decide to organize a co-design workshop where users can interact with early-stage wireframes or paper prototypes.
Plan your implementation
This involves the logistical aspects of your chosen PD methods. If you’re organizing a workshop, this includes selecting participants, setting the agenda, and gathering necessary materials. For surveys and interviews, this involves designing questions, selecting the sample group, and choosing a data analysis approach. Make sure to follow the DOs and DONT’s we’ve discussed earlier for each method.
You carefully plan out the logistics for your chosen methods. For the user interviews and surveys, you develop open-ended questions that guide users to share their fitness routines and experiences with fitness apps. For the co-design workshop, you decide on the participant selection, workshop agenda, and prepare necessary materials like wireframes and pens for sketching.
Execute your plan
This is the implementation phase. Run the workshop, conduct the interviews, observe users, or test your prototypes. Ensure the process is participatory and inclusive, valuing the input of all participants. Again, relate to DOs and DONT’s shared earlier – they will give you a good idea (together with a mini checklist for each method).
You follow through with the interviews, surveys, and co-design workshops, ensuring an inclusive environment where every participant feels comfortable sharing their thoughts. During the co-design workshop, for example, you encourage users to critique and improve upon your app’s design actively.
Measure, analyze and apply findings
This is where you make sense of the data gathered. For qualitative data from workshops, interviews, and contextual inquiry, this might involve identifying common themes and pain points. For prototype testing, it might involve identifying features that users struggle with or appreciate. Once you’ve measured and analyzed the data, apply these insights to your design.
After collecting your data, you might recognize common themes and pain points from the interviews and surveys. Perhaps, many users find current fitness apps too complex or not personalized enough. In the co-design workshop, maybe you discovered that users appreciated a feature allowing them to set personal goals within the app. These insights directly inform the design of your new fitness app to ensure it better meets user needs and expectations.
And later in this article, you’ll find how to define KPIs and to assess the success of your implementation of participatory design methods.
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Balancing design expertise and user input
Achieving an effective balance between design expertise and user input is a cornerstone of participatory design. This interplay is crucial as it brings together the technical proficiency of your design team and the real-world insights from your users.
Your design team, armed with a deep understanding of design principles and product creation, can deliver aesthetically appealing, functional, and user-friendly designs. Yet, they may not always be in tune with the exact needs, preferences, and challenges of the end-users.
Users, on the other hand, while not formally trained in design, are experts in their own experiences. They have first-hand knowledge of what they need, what works for them, and what doesn’t. Despite this, they may not fully grasp the constraints and possibilities that lie within the design process.
In participatory design, the goal is to blend these unique perspectives, leveraging each of their strengths to shape the final product. Designers steer the process, strategically involving users and their input throughout various stages of the design journey. The resulting design then is an amalgamation of professional expertise and real-world user insights, culminating in a product that truly addresses the user’s needs.
Take for example, a project where you are tasked with redesigning an e-commerce platform. The design team had prepared a sleek and innovative interface, drawing upon industry trends and best practices. However, it quickly became evident in your co-design workshops with a diverse group of users that, while technically impressive, your design was perceived as too complex and intimidating for the average user.
This feedback is invaluable. It allowed you to revise your designs with a renewed focus on accessibility and simplicity, without compromising on the innovative aspects we had initially incorporated. These changes are possible and effective because of the participatory design approach you adopted, putting user needs and preferences at the forefront.
Iterative feedback loop
Another strategy we consistently employed was an iterative feedback loop. Our designers at Point Jupiter don’t just seek input at the project’s outset, but throughout the design process. As our design evolved, so did our understanding of the users’ needs and preferences. This constant back-and-forth ensured our design stayed aligned with user expectations, fostering a sense of shared ownership and commitment to the final product.
The result? An aesthetically appealing, innovative digital product that was both user-friendly and met the users’ needs, receiving enthusiastic feedback from the end-users.
This experience highlights the importance of balancing design expertise and user input in participatory design. The approach not only results in a well-received product but also encourages a culture of empathy and respect between designers and users. The ultimate goal is a digital product that combines usability and innovation, steeped in a profound understanding of user needs and contexts.
Strategies for Dealing with Challenges
Successfully implementing Participatory Design (PD) can be a complex endeavor, akin to a navigating a labyrinth with multiple paths and potential pitfalls. However, equipped with the right strategies, these challenges can be successfully surmounted, and your PD journey can lead to innovative and user-centered design outcomes. Let’s delve deeper into some specific challenges that can arise during the PD process, and how they can be mitigated.
Effectively facilitating PD workshops
An integral aspect of PD is the participatory design workshop, where diverse stakeholders collaborate to share ideas, insights, and feedback. A challenge that often arises in these settings is managing group dynamics. This could involve dealing with participants who dominate conversations, or those who are hesitant to share their views. The key to navigating these dynamics is an effective facilitator.
The facilitator’s role is to ensure that all voices are heard and valued. They should actively manage the dynamics by encouraging quieter participants to share their ideas, while respectfully managing more assertive voices. It’s a delicate act, but crucial for fostering an inclusive and constructive environment.
For instance, in a project redesigning an educational app, we faced a situation where a few experienced teachers dominated the discussion, overshadowing inputs from newer teachers and parents. Our facilitator stepped in to consciously direct questions towards the less vocal participants, ensuring that their insights were also incorporated in the design process.
PD is a dynamic process that rarely follows a straight path. A workshop may begin with a specific plan, only to veer into unexpected directions based on user input. This flexibility is not a hurdle, but an inherent feature of PD that can lead to novel solutions.
In one project, we aimed to improve the interface of telecom service frontend-sales software. However, user feedback during a workshop revealed that the real issue was not the interface, but the workflow the software imposed. By being flexible and willing to reframe our design problem, we were able to address the root issue and significantly improve the software’s usability.
Prioritizing clear communication
Effective communication is crucial in PD. It’s essential to articulate the purpose of the PD process and individual workshops clearly to all participants. This also includes transparently communicating any constraints or limitations, to manage expectations.
One challenge we faced was that users felt their input was not being incorporated into the design, leading to frustration. We addressed this by introducing a feedback loop, where we explained how user input was shaping the design after each workshop. This transparency improved trust and fostered a greater sense of ownership among users.
Systematic use of data
PD generates a vast amount of data, including user insights and feedback. However, this data can become overwhelming if not managed systematically. We recommend categorizing feedback, identifying patterns, and focusing on actionable insights.
In a project to redefine public service delivery and implementation, we received diverse and sometimes conflicting feedback. By systematically analyzing this feedback, we identified a common thread: users valued reliability over additional features. This key insight guided our design decisions, resulting in a simpler, but more reliable app that users appreciated.These strategies underscore the importance of skillful facilitation, flexibility, clear communication, and systematic use of data in addressing challenges in the PD process. Employing these strategies can lead to a more effective and user-centered design outcome.
Measuring the success of participatory design
Determining the success of your Participatory Design (PD) process is akin to evaluating the effectiveness of a new software release within your organization. You’ve collaborated with all the right stakeholders, dedicated numerous hours to crafting the optimal user experience, but the real question remains – how can you objectively determine its success? Is it the initial positive reactions to the new interface? The increased efficiency of processes? Or perhaps the seamless adoption by the users? In a similar fashion, the triumph of PD isn’t merely about delivering a design. It’s about confirming that your design genuinely resonates with the end-users.
Let’s further explore how to ensure that your PD process is effectively driving the results you’re after by identifying key performance indicators (KPIs), gathering and analyzing feedback, and refining your design based on these insights.
Identifying key performance indicators (KPIs)
Think about rolling out a new software solution within a large corporation. Each feature you launch, every workflow you enhance, is designed with an express objective in mind – perhaps to improve productivity, reduce errors, or automate manual processes. Success, then, would be measured against these targets. This could involve tracking the number of reduced support tickets, time saved per task, or positive feedback from users.
As a practitioner of PD, you’re creating a product tailored to meet the needs and expectations of your users. Just as in our software rollout example, Key Performance Indicators serve as your tangible, measurable markers of success.
Let’s examine some potential KPIs that you could use to measure your participatory design methods outcomes and overall effectiveness.
The first measure you’d want to consider is user satisfaction. Picture seeing a significant drop in the number of support tickets raised after the launch of your new software. That’s the essence of user satisfaction in the realm of digital products. Usually determined through surveys or feedback forms, users get to rate their experience on a scale of 1-10. High levels of satisfaction are a solid sign that your design is hitting its marks. As a general rule, anything 8 or above is a pat on the back for a job well done.
Now, let’s talk about usability. Imagine that you’ve rolled out the new software, but you discover that users are having a hard time adjusting to the new interface. That’s a red flag, isn’t it? This is where usability testing comes into play. By keeping tabs on key metrics like task completion rate, error rate, and the time taken to complete tasks, we can quickly identify and rectify such issues. A task completion rate of more than 85%, for instance, is a good indicator that your design is user-friendly.
Let’s not forget user engagement. This is akin to keeping track of how often and for how long your team uses the new software. In the digital product landscape, we look at metrics like time spent on the product, frequency of use, and depth of interaction. A steady increase in these figures over time is a clear indication that users aren’t just finding your product useful, but they’re actively engaging with it.
Product (or service) adoption and user retention
Finally, there’s product adoption and retention. Think of it this way: in the software rollout scenario, new employees can be seen as ‘new users,’ while those who’ve been around are ‘retained users.’ It’s crucial to monitor the pace at which new users take to the software and how consistently existing users continue to use it over time. If you’re maintaining a retention rate of over 25% after 8 weeks, that’s a clear sign that your design is hitting the right notes.
In conclusion, Participatory Design (PD) is a powerful approach that fosters collaboration between designers and users, resulting in innovative solutions that meet user needs and preferences. The blog explored various participatory design methods, from workshops to interviews and prototyping, offering practical checklists and DOs and DON’Ts for each.
It also outlined the importance of balancing design expertise with user input is crucial, achieved through effective facilitation and iterative feedback loops.
Then,, we shared some challenges in PD that can be overcome with strategies like clear communication and systematic data analysis. And lastly we talked about objective data. Measuring success requires setting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) related to user satisfaction, usability, engagement, and product adoption.
Embracing PD empowers designers and businesses to create user-centered digital products that shape the future of design and enrich users’ lives.
Let’s embark on this journey together, co-creating a brighter, more user-centric future. Drop us a message for a free consultation.
Let’s connect and we’ll get back to you!