Participatory design: What is and what makes it so great?

We explore what is participatory design, and what exactly makes it such a great practice in usability research. We share tips and insights.

What is participatory design and what makes it so great? hoto by Perry Grone on Unsplash

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 overview of participatory design and why it is being used by more and more usability specialists.

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 exercises

PD 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’s the definition of participatory design?

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.

PD 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.

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.

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 PD 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.

The tools

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.

Participatory design: What is and what makes it so great? - Photo by J. Goodman - Unsplash

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.

In conclusion

A participatory design session is an excellent opportunity for designers and researchers to meet and identify with the end-user. 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.

It is essential to try and keep the tools used as simplistic as possible. Don’t let the tools you use overshadow the message your participants are trying to get across. Ask a lot of questions! And as with any usability technique or method, make sure to spend most of the session closely observing your participants.

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.

Let’s connect

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.