We explore what is participatory design, and what exactly makes it such a great practice in usability research. We share tips and insights.
As a relatively new approach to designing software, participatory design is proving itself to be an incredibly valuable tool in usability research. Here is our in-depth article about participatory design and why it is being used by more and more usability specialists.
The global participatory design market is expected to grow at a CAGR of around 9.3% from 2021 to 2028, showcasing the increasing importance of this design methodology in various industries (Source: Acumen Research and Consulting).
History and evolution of participatory design
Participatory design (in its origins also called and known as cooperative design, and its original homeland is Scandinavia) is a relatively new approach to designing products. It successfully involves the stakeholders, designers, researchers, and end-users in the design process to help ensure that the end product meets the needs of its intended user base.
Participatory design has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, a period marked by social and political change, as well as a growing awareness of the importance of user involvement in the design process. This movement initially emerged in Scandinavia as a response to traditional top-down approaches to design, which often resulted in products that did not adequately address the needs and preferences of end-users.
Influenced by the democratic ideals of the time, Scandinavian designers sought to involve users in the design process more actively. This approach was particularly popular in the field of workplace democracy, where the aim was to give workers a voice in the design of the tools and environments they used daily. The goal was to create more humane and efficient work systems that catered to the needs of the workers, rather than forcing them to adapt to poorly designed systems.
One of the earliest examples of participatory design in Scandinavia was the UTOPIA project in the early 1980s. This collaborative effort between researchers, graphic designers, and trade union members aimed to develop computer-based tools for newspaper production that considered the needs and input of the workers. The project demonstrated the value of involving users in the design process and contributed to the development of key participatory design principles and methods.
Over time, participatory design has evolved to encompass a wide range of industries, including software and product design, urban planning, architecture, graphic design, and even healthcare.
Key aspects and influences of participatory design
As technology has advanced, participatory design has also adapted to new tools and methodologies, such as online collaboration platforms, virtual reality, and digital prototyping. These advancements have allowed for more efficient and effective ways of involving users in the design process, even when they are geographically dispersed.
The influence of Scandinavian design principles on participatory design remains strong, emphasizing empathy, simplicity, and functionality. These principles advocate for designing products and systems that prioritize the needs and well-being of users, fostering a more inclusive and democratic design process. Some key aspects of Scandinavian design that have shaped participatory design include:
- User-centered design: Focusing on understanding and addressing the needs and preferences of end-users throughout the entire design process, from ideation to implementation.
- Collaboration and co-creation: Encouraging collaboration between designers, researchers, stakeholders, and end-users to develop solutions that address the needs of all parties involved.
- Iterative and reflective design process: Emphasizing continuous improvement through an iterative design process that incorporates user feedback and reflection on the impact of design decisions.
- Accessibility and inclusivity: Ensuring that products and systems are designed to be accessible and usable by a diverse range of users, regardless of their abilities, age, or cultural background.
What’s the definition of participatory design?
Participatory design is considered – to be both a process and a strategy – which brings end-users and customers to the design (and, one could argue, development) process.
It’s important to understand that participatory design is not the same thing as empathic design. As opposed to empathic design, in which researchers and developers move into the world of end-users, participatory design can be seen as relocating end-users into the world of research and development. It was ubiquitous (and still is in many aspects!) to include users and customers at the beginning of the design process (pre-market research, ideation phase) and later in the process (usability testing, design audits, and evaluation). But what about the central part of the design work? What about the place where the bulk of the work gets done?
Enter participatory design
That is where participatory design enters the scene with its concepts of participatory design exercises and more. Some of the terms used for participatory design are co-creation and cooperative design, even a co-design is sometimes used. Regardless of the naming convention, the general idea is the same – bringing in real-world users as key stakeholders and actors in your design (and development) process. Not just at the start or the end of the project – rather – during the entire project design phase. The concept here is user involvement in design projects and design teams.
Essentially, Participatory design is an approach to designing products, systems, or services that actively involves end-users, stakeholders, and designers in the design process. This collaborative approach ensures that the final product meets the needs and expectations of its intended user base.
It is important to note that, while the users are a valuable source of information and ideas in participatory design, they are not allowed to make end decisions and are never empowered with the tools that the experts use. To make meaningful decisions and analyze gathered information, rely on trained and experienced UX specialists and experts.
Because of this, some academic sources (Mumford) refer to the participatory design as a consultative design, while they reserve the participative design only for those democratic processes where users can have a final saying.
Core principles of participatory design
There are several core principles of participatory design. As you might expect, they are largely influenced by the same principles from the Scandinavian design we mentioned earlier.
- Collaboration: This is the foundation of participatory design, as it encourages the exchange of ideas and perspectives among diverse stakeholders. This process of co-creation allows for a richer understanding of user needs, enabling designers to develop more effective and relevant solutions.
- Empathy: As a principle, empathy is central to participatory design, as it helps designers put themselves in the users’ shoes to understand their needs, desires, and challenges. This empathetic approach fosters a more user-centered design process, leading to products and services that better resonate with users and improve their overall experience.
- User-centeredness: This is a key principle of participatory design, emphasizing the importance of focusing on end-users throughout the design process. By actively involving users in the design process, their needs and preferences are more effectively addressed, resulting in a more satisfying and useful final product.
- Inclusivity and diversity: Both of these, closely related principles, are crucial to participatory design, as they ensure that a wide range of perspectives and experiences are considered during the design process. This approach leads to more accessible and inclusive solutions that cater to the needs of a diverse user base, ultimately promoting equity and reducing potential barriers for different groups of users.
- Iterative process: Participatory design follows an iterative process that allows for continuous improvement and refinement based on user feedback and insights. This approach enables designers to identify and address potential issues or challenges early in the process, leading to more effective and successful solutions.
- Flexibility and adaptability: Participatory design encourages flexibility and adaptability, as it recognizes that user needs and preferences may change over time. By being open to change and willing to adapt designs based on evolving user requirements, designers can create products and services that remain relevant and valuable in the long run.
- Shared ownership and empowerment: Lastly, participatory design promotes shared ownership and empowerment by giving users and stakeholders a voice in the design process. This approach fosters a sense of ownership and investment in the final product, increasing user satisfaction and engagement.
These key principles contribute to the success of participatory design by fostering a more collaborative, user-centered, and empathetic approach to design.
By actively involving users and stakeholders in the design process and adhering to these principles, designers can create solutions that are more effective, relevant, and meaningful to their intended audience.
Participatory design in different fields
Granted, if you are reading this blog, you are likely related to UX and UI design and digital product design and development. However, participatory design is widely applicable in a variety of different fields. Here are just some of them.
In the field of education, participatory design can be used to create learning environments, curricula, and educational tools that are more effective and engaging for students.
By involving teachers, students, and parents in the design process, educational institutions can develop solutions that better address the diverse needs and learning styles of their students.
For example, participatory design can be employed to create more inclusive classroom layouts, develop adaptive learning materials for students with special needs, or design educational technology that is user-friendly and supports different learning modalities.
Participatory design plays a crucial role in healthcare by involving patients, caregivers, and medical professionals in the development of medical devices, treatments, and healthcare facilities.
This approach can lead to more patient-centered care and improved health outcomes by ensuring that the needs and preferences of patients are considered throughout the design process.
For instance, participatory design can be used to create more accessible hospital spaces, develop user-friendly medical devices, or design digital health solutions that are tailored to the specific needs of different patient populations
In environmental design, participatory design can contribute to more sustainable and inclusive solutions by involving community members, local stakeholders, and environmental experts in the planning and design process.
This approach ensures that the unique needs, values, and perspectives of different stakeholders are taken into account, resulting in more context-sensitive and environmentally responsible designs.
Examples of participatory design in environmental design include community-driven urban planning initiatives, collaborative landscape design projects, and the development of eco-friendly housing solutions. By actively involving the people who will be most affected by these environmental designs, planners and designers can create spaces and systems that are more resilient, equitable, and harmonious with the surrounding environment.
In all of these fields, participatory design can contribute to more inclusive and accessible solutions by ensuring that a diverse range of stakeholders are actively involved in the design process.
This collaborative approach not only leads to more effective and relevant outcomes but also empowers individuals and communities to take ownership of the solutions that directly impact their lives.
Through participatory design, designers can develop a deeper understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities within each context, leading to more innovative, user-centered, and sustainable solutions across various fields.
Who’s using participatory design in their work
Not only is participatory design being adopted by small and medium-sized enterprises, but it has also been embraced by some of the world’s leading companies. Here are a few examples of popular companies and products that have successfully used participatory design:
- Microsoft: As mentioned later in this article, Microsoft used participatory design while developing the ribbon interface for its Office suite. This process helped the company uncover new ways users interacted with the software, leading to the inclusion of an unplanned feature that allowed users to navigate through tabs using the scroll wheel on their mouse.
- IKEA: The global furniture retailer has used participatory design in the development of various products and store layouts. By involving customers in the design process, IKEA has been able to create more user-friendly and accessible solutions, catering to a wide range of customer needs and preferences.
- Google: Google has employed participatory design techniques in the development of some of its products, such as Google Maps and Google Classroom. By involving users in the design process, Google has been able to create more intuitive interfaces and features, ultimately leading to better user experiences.
- Airbnb: Airbnb, the popular home-sharing platform, has utilized participatory design to improve its website and mobile app user experience. By involving both hosts and guests in the design process, the company has been able to better understand the needs of its users and make improvements that benefit both parties. For example, through participatory design sessions, Airbnb discovered that hosts wanted more control over their listing details, leading to the introduction of customizable booking settings and enhanced listing management features.
- Lego: The iconic toy manufacturer has long embraced participatory design, involving its customers in the development of new products and even the design of its theme parks. The Lego Ideas platform is a prime example of this approach, allowing users to submit their own Lego set designs and vote on others’ submissions. Winning designs are then produced and sold by Lego, with the original designer receiving a portion of the sales revenue.
- Mozilla: The organization behind the popular Firefox web browser has used participatory design to involve its users in the development of new features and improvements. Through initiatives like the Test Pilot program, Mozilla allowed users to test experimental features and provide feedback, helping to shape the browser’s future direction.
These examples demonstrate the growing importance of participatory design in various industries and how leading companies are successfully using this approach to create more user-centered products and experiences. By involving end-users in the design process, businesses can gain invaluable insights into their customers’
needs and preferences, ultimately leading to more effective and innovative solutions that resonate with their target audience.
The success of participatory design in these companies also highlights the importance of incorporating user feedback throughout the entire design and development process. This approach not only helps to identify potential issues and areas for improvement but also fosters a sense of ownership and connection between the users and the product. In turn, this can lead to increased customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy for the brand.
As more industries and organizations recognize the value of participatory design, it is expected that this approach will continue to gain traction and become a standard practice in product development and user experience design. By adopting participatory design methodologies, businesses can ensure that their products and services are tailored to meet the unique needs and expectations of their users, ultimately leading to better overall experiences and greater success in the market.
Participatory design sessions
Participatory design exercises are used in a variety of fields. From software and product design, urban design, architecture, graphic design, to even medicine.
Up until recently, the majority of consumers believed they were not being designed “for” by the companies they bought their products from, but rather designed “at” and forced to adapt to the ideas and principles that weren’t intuitive to them.
To fix this, Participatory Design was a creative invention which aimed to include the end-users into the design process actively. Thus making the participants and active part-takers in what was once reserved for design and development teams only.
What are participatory design sessions?
Participatory design sessions are simple exercises in which we give our users the tools to create and design mockups of software or products they would love to use in the “perfect world” scenario while also asking them to explain why they built their perfect software or a product in that particular way.
From observing their building process and listening to their explanations of why they built something in this or that way, we learn a lot of the things we wouldn’t do through a mere interview with the user.
When should you run a participatory design session?
- When you want to understand better how people think about a given problem, discipline, or technology, run a participatory design session.
- If you have a feeling that what the users say they do and what they actually do are not the same, run a participatory design session.
- When you feel like there is, or could be, any cultural or political disconnect between you and the end-user. A technique such as this might be the best way for you to observe and learn from the user.
How to run a participatory design session – concrete steps
Now this is a long one, but it comes with detailed steps and activities that you need to successfully plan, deliver and get the best out of the participatory design sessions.
Before the session
- Define the objectives: Start by clearly defining the goals and objectives of the participatory design session. Understand what you aim to achieve through the session and how it aligns with your overall project goals. This will help you plan the session effectively and communicate its purpose to participants.
- Identify and recruit participants: Select a diverse group of participants that represent your target user base, including stakeholders, end-users, and subject matter experts. Consider factors such as age, gender, cultural background, and professional expertise to ensure a wide range of perspectives. Reach out to potential participants through various channels, like email, social media, or referrals from colleagues.
- Prepare materials and tools: Gather the necessary materials and tools for the session, such as whiteboards, sticky notes, pens, markers, and any specialized tools relevant to your project. Ensure that all materials are accessible and easy to use for participants. More on the tools in the following section.
- Set up the environment: Choose a comfortable and neutral space for the session, where participants feel at ease to share their ideas and collaborate. Arrange seating in a way that encourages open communication and collaboration, such as a circular or U-shaped configuration.
- Establish ground rules: At the beginning of the session, establish some ground rules to create a safe and respectful environment for participants. Encourage open communication, active listening, and constructive feedback. Make it clear that all ideas and perspectives are valuable and welcome, and that there are no wrong answers or contributions. This will help create an atmosphere where participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and insights.
During the session
- Warm-up activities: Begin the session with some icebreaker activities or warm-up exercises to help participants feel more relaxed and engaged. These activities can be simple, such as brief introductions or a fun group game. The goal is to create a sense of camaraderie and break down any initial barriers to collaboration.
- Introduce the design exercise: Present the design exercise or challenge to the participants, explaining the objectives and desired outcomes. Make sure to provide clear instructions and guidelines on how the exercise should be conducted.
- Facilitate the session: As a facilitator, guide the participants through the design exercise, helping them stay focused on the task and encouraging collaboration. Be prepared to answer questions, provide clarification, and offer support as needed. Monitor the progress of the session and adjust the pace or direction if necessary to keep participants engaged and on track.
After the session
- Encourage reflection and feedback: After completing the design exercise, encourage participants to reflect on their experience and share their insights. Facilitate a group discussion where participants can provide feedback on the process, the outcomes, and any challenges they encountered. This step is crucial for gathering valuable information to improve future participatory design sessions and to inform the project’s development.
- Document and analyze the results: Capture the outcomes of the session by taking photos, recording notes, and collecting any artifacts produced during the exercise, such as sketches or prototypes. Analyze the results to identify key insights, recurring themes, and actionable suggestions. This documentation will be valuable for informing the next steps of your project and for tracking the impact of the participatory design session on the overall design process.
- Follow up with participants: After the session, follow up with participants to thank them for their contributions and to share any updates on the project’s progress. This can help maintain a positive relationship with your participants and keep them engaged in the project’s development.
There’s more than just sessions!
Participatory design methods – an ultimate guide
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “A participatory design session sounds great! I want to conduct one, but which tools do I need?”
When it comes to the tools and design methods you can use in participatory design sessions, nothing is set in stone.
…Unless you want to provide your participants with stone blocks and rocks. Which is totally fine, and sounds like a great idea!
Depending on what you are designing, tools for the session can be anything. If you are working on developing a product or an environment, you might want to use wooden bricks, Legos, plasticine, pieces of rope, maps, and so on. You can even use post-it notes successfully and in a variety of different ways.
One of the great things about participatory design exercises is that the only limitation when it comes to the tools used is your imagination.
If you are designing software, you might decide to stick to pen and paper. (Or a whiteboard!) You could create blank versions of different device screens and ask participants to draw out the UI. You could provide the participants with cut-out icons and boxes. They can arrange them to their liking and according to their needs – explaining why they put something in one place instead of the other.
By letting the participants show us what matters to them, as opposed to telling us, we are getting more specific and more honest data out of the session.
Benefits of the participatory design in web (software) development
While we use participatory design in many different industries and for various needs, let’s focus on its benefits directly related to web and software development in general.
When we include end-users in our design and development process, we are bringing in a new and fresh perspective, and many times, original ideas. Designers and developers, alike, often get tangled in their daily tasks and operate under certain assumptions. More often than not, a perspective shared by design and development teams is not the same perspective shared with the intended users.
During the product ideation phase, the inclusion of external participants can open some new areas and directions. During the development and implementation phase, comments and feedback from users are equally important, and we cherish them!
You can rely on participatory design sessions. However, you can also use web forms and surveys about a particular product and service features. This will provide you with a bit more quantitative set of information.
Participatory design case: Microsoft Office and ribbon user experience
Users can uncover different ways of using your product.
One of my favorite stories is from the time when I worked at Microsoft.
The Microsoft Office team conducted usability tests of the new Office ribbon interface. They set up a quick slideshow to prototype the concept using PowerPoint. Imagine a set of screens, mutually connected.
Each screen/slide had a different ribbon tab opened. The intention was to see if participants would be able to find tools and options under some different tabs. The expected interaction for them was to click on each tab, and then the new slide would open. And the majority of users did just that – click on tabs, and the new slide would appear.
One user, however, used the scroll wheel on her mouse. If you are using PowerPoint, then you know that you can quickly jump through slides using the scroll wheel on the mouse. When she started doing that, new slides would open, and each slide had a different tab selected. She was happy to say that she loves the fact that she can use the scroll wheel to navigate through tabs quickly. This feature wasn’t planned initially planned, it found its way into Microsoft Office, and it’s still there – check it out.
This vividly depicts why this approach makes sense and gives results. It puts users in a very active role. It offers them a chance to shape the product making sure it is built “for” them, not thrown “at” them.
Challenges and limitations of participatory design
Although there are obvious benefits to running participatory design sessions, those sessions, as well as the participatory design approach itself, comes with several challenges.
Those challenges are related to time constraints, an ability to manage expectations (and set goals), ensure representative and diverse group of participants, achieve that fine balance between expertise and user input…
In following paragraphs, we are outlining key challenges and limitations of participatory design as well as solutions and practical tips to them.
Participatory design can be time-consuming, as it involves multiple stakeholders, extensive collaboration, and iterative processes. This may not always align with tight project timelines or budget constraints.
Prioritize and plan your participatory design activities carefully, ensuring that they are focused and targeted towards the most critical aspects of the project. Allocate sufficient time and resources for these activities in the project timeline, and consider using remote collaboration tools to expedite the process.
Participants in a participatory design process may have varying expectations about their roles, the project outcomes, and the extent to which their input will be taken into account. This can lead to frustration or disappointment if these expectations are not managed effectively.
Establish clear expectations and guidelines from the beginning, emphasizing the purpose and scope of the participatory design process. Be transparent about how the participants’ input will be used and integrated into the final design, and maintain open communication throughout the project.
Ensuring diverse representation
In some cases, participatory design sessions may inadvertently exclude certain groups or perspectives, leading to a biased or incomplete understanding of user needs.
Strive for diverse representation among participants by actively seeking out individuals from different backgrounds, ages, genders, and abilities. Consider partnering with community organizations or advocacy groups to help recruit a more diverse group of participants.
Balancing expertise and user input
While the goal of participatory design is to involve end-users in the design process, it is crucial to strike a balance between user input and the expertise of design professionals.
Encourage collaboration between users and design professionals, fostering a cooperative environment where both parties can learn from each other. Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of each stakeholder to ensure that user input is taken into account, while still allowing design professionals to apply their expertise and guide the process.
Maintaining momentum and engagement
It can be challenging to maintain the momentum and engagement of participants throughout the entire participatory design process, especially if the project is lengthy or complex.
Keep participants engaged by maintaining regular communication, providing updates on the project’s progress, and celebrating milestones. Offer incentives or rewards for participation, such as discounts on the final product, certificates of appreciation, or public recognition. Additionally, consider breaking the participatory design process into smaller, manageable phases to maintain focus and motivation.
Ensuring quality and consistency
As participatory design involves input from various stakeholders, the process may sometimes result in inconsistent or low-quality design elements.
Establish a set of design guidelines and principles to guide the participatory design process, ensuring that all contributions align with the project’s overall goals and quality standards. Additionally, involve design professionals in reviewing and refining the user-generated content to maintain a high level of quality and consistency.
Addressing challenges will lead to better sessions
By acknowledging and addressing the potential challenges and limitations of participatory design, it is possible to develop more effective strategies and best practices that can lead to successful outcomes.
Also, by fostering a collaborative and inclusive design process, participatory design can result in innovative, user-centered solutions that better meet the needs and preferences of a diverse audience.
In conclusion – and why is participatory design a data-informed design
A participatory design session is an excellent opportunity for designers and researchers to meet and identify with the end-user. As such, it plays a crucial role in creating user-centered solutions by actively involving end-users in the design process. We invite the user to enter the creative process, and by listening to them, we can avoid making mistakes. The same mistakes we often make as a result of designing for ourselves instead of designing for the user.
By engaging with users throughout the project, designers and researchers can gain valuable insights, avoid potential pitfalls, and ensure that the final product truly meets the needs and preferences of its intended audience.
Some key takeaways from this post include the importance of understanding the history and evolution of participatory design, its application across various fields such as education, healthcare, and environmental design, and its core principles like collaboration, empathy, and user-centeredness.
We also discussed practical steps to conduct a successful participatory design session, as well as the challenges and limitations that may arise and how you can overcome them.
As you consider incorporating participatory design into your projects, keep in mind the numerous benefits it can bring. By fostering a collaborative and inclusive approach, you can create more innovative and effective solutions that resonate with your users. Remember to maintain open communication, ask plenty of questions, and closely observe participants to make the most of their insights and contributions.
We encourage you to explore and adopt participatory design in your projects, as it offers the potential to create more meaningful, user-centered solutions that stand the test of time. By doing so, you will not only contribute to the ongoing evolution of this essential design approach but also help shape a more inclusive and accessible future for all.
Participatory design also serves as a data-informed approach, as it relies on input and feedback directly from users to inform and improve the design process. This enables designers and developers to make evidence-based decisions, ultimately resulting in better user experiences, products, and services.
By incorporating real-world user perspectives, designers can address the specific pain points and preferences of their target audience, leading to more relevant and successful outcomes.
Embracing this data-informed mindset can be a key differentiator for businesses and organizations, as it ensures that their offerings are not only user-friendly but also genuinely meet the needs and desires of their customers. That’s exactly what we are doing here at Point Jupiter.
By adopting participatory design, you are actively committing to a user-centered approach that elevates the value and effectiveness of your products and services, setting you apart from competitors and driving long-term success.
My former colleague, Ines Anić, covered this topic initially. Based on her excellent work, I expanded it and added more content. So, you should consider it as a collaborative blog post between Ines and me. 🙂
Recently, our friends at Toptal reached out to us and suggested we link to their fine article about why UX research matters. So, go ahead and check it out.
If you are looking to develop your career as a usability and user researcher, and get the chance to run your own participatory design sessions – we might be a good fit. Check out the Careers page, and apply.
If you are a potential client, looking for professional and quality usability testing and user research services – we should talk. Users, their needs, and the usability of products and services are something we take a lot of pride in. We are user advocates, while – at the same time – we understand your business environment and expectations.