What Is Participatory Design? Participatory Design In A Nutshell

Participatory design (PD) is an approach to product design involving the active participation of researchers, end-users, partners, citizens, designers, employees, and other stakeholders.

Understanding participatory design

While many organizations are embracing design-led innovation, a design team’s interactions with customers are frequently limited to the early research and late evaluation phases of the design process.

Between these phases is where ideas are generated, a process that occurs internally with little to no external input.

Participatory design seeks to remedy this issue by inviting all stakeholders into the design process.

This helps the design team understand, meet, and even pre-empt stakeholder needs by having them take an active role in design solutions for themselves.

When an organization adopts the mindset of designing with stakeholders and not for stakeholders, it tends to develop more innovative and customer-centric products and services. Participatory design also helps a business:

  • Better understand how people think about a given problem, discipline, or technology.
  • Determine if there is a contradiction between what an end-user says they will do and what they actually do.
  • Determine if there is a cultural or political disconnect between itself and the end-user.

Participatory design strategies

How do businesses uncover unmet needs during product design? In truth, there are many ways:

Journey mapping

The customer journey – sometimes called the buyer or user journey – tells the customer experience with a business, brand, product, or service. A customer journey is an alternative approach to other linear models like the sales funnel which hypothesize that most customers follow the same path.

Here, customers map out their current experiences on a journey map.

This includes frustrations, challenges, pain points, and areas for opportunity.

Some organizations find that extracting information within the context of the entire customer experience yields better results than focusing on standalone issues.

Magic button

An activity that encourages customers to imagine their ideal experience.

In other words, what if they could get what they wanted, when they wanted it?

The magic button also helps customers focus on their “right-now” needs. 

Lensed brainstorming

Round-robin brainstorming is a collective and iterative approach to brainstorming. Brainstorming is an effective way of generating fresh ideas for an organization. Round-robin brainstorming is a balanced approach, employing an iterative, circular process that builds on the previous contribution of each participant.

The goal of lensed brainstorming is to generate lots of ideas in a short time. Note that a lens is one or two words representing a key concept, brand attribute, or mindset that helps participants look at a scenario differently.

Three to five lenses per group with 2 minutes spent brainstorming on each will deliver the best results.

Benefits of participatory design

There are many benefits to the participatory design process. Some of the more significant benefits include:

Reduced risk of failure

With more stakeholders participating in the design process, the implication is that more people will check each step and uncover mistakes. 


By its very nature, participatory design helps stakeholders feel a sense of pride and ownership over the product design process.

Empowered stakeholders are more likely to be invested in the final product and more broadly, organizational success.


The participation of more stakeholders also brings with it more expertise and a diverse range of perspectives.

End-users in particular help the design team consider fresh and original ideas that help them question their assumptions.

Key takeaways

  • Participatory design (PD) is an approach to product design involving the active participation of researchers, end-users, partners, citizens, designers, employees, and other stakeholders.
  • Participatory design helps customers uncover unmet needs via journey mapping, the magic button, and lensed brainstorming, among other techniques. This inclusive approach to product development helps the organization understand, meet, and pre-empt stakeholder needs.
  • Participatory design reduces the risk of failure and guarantees there is more expertise to uncover and rectify mistakes. Stakeholders who are engaged in the process are more likely to be invested in the success of the product. They also bring fresh perspectives to sometimes insular product design teams.

Participatory design examples

Microsoft Office

When Microsoft first introduced the ribbon interface for Office products, a team conducted usability tests with a PowerPoint slideshow used to prototype the concept.

To determine if users would be able to find tools or options under various situations, each slide featured a different ribbon tab.

Microsoft intended for users to click on each tab before a new slide would open.

However, one user decided to use the scroll wheel on the mouse to navigate through the tabs more quickly.

This previously unplanned feature later found its way into Microsoft Office, with one user in particular taking an active role in shaping the final product.

Floating gardens

Participatory design was also used in Cambodia to develop floating vegetable gardens for low-income communities living on a lake.

The initiative, a collaboration between villagers, community organizations, CoDesign Studio, and the Agile Development Group, was split into three distinct phases: scoping, prototyping, and evaluation.

The scoping process involved meetings and creative consultation sessions. It was discovered that the locals had problems with insects eating their crops and, in any case, did not know much about agriculture because their ancestors had lived on the water for decades.

Participants were encouraged to draw their idea of a perfect garden and answer the following questions:

  • Which plants would you like to grow?
  • What are the optimal soil type and depths?
  • Does the floating garden need to be able to support a person’s weight?
  • What materials should be used, and why?
  • What (if any) safeguards are there against pests such as rats?

A prototyping field trip was undertaken a few months later that was attended by Australian design consultants, volunteers, and local people.

These individuals were split into four teams and each was tasked with developing a floating garden prototype for $30 or less.

Creating a low-cost solution was important because it would empower poorer citizens and reduce their reliance on donor organizations.

In the final evaluation phase, activities and questionnaires were designed to encourage villagers to discuss their prototypes and any ideas for further improvements.

The effectiveness of several prototypes was compared to baseline data from various metrics such as improved nutrition and food sovereignty, increased knowledge of design and agriculture, and innovation in design. 

A reflection session was also held to discuss what went well in the participatory design process and what did not.

It was noted that the participants had transitioned from designer-led to user-led design and, most importantly, had increased their food production levels.

Collaborative learning environments

In the mid-2000s, computer and software technology was mostly underutilized in U.S. classrooms.

Teachers found it difficult to incorporate these technologies into their curriculum or were simply unaware of their potential benefits.

Participatory design was used to design a collaborative, science-based learning environment where teachers and students took an active role in system analysis and design.

In a process that lasted for two and a half years, both user groups generated a majority of the claims, scenarios, and prototypes to improve the practicality and relevance of educational technology.

The process also increased the social and cognitive development of teachers.

Many felt more confident to apply and incorporate custom educational software into their lesson plans as they became more technologically savvy.

Others became empowered to participate in the design process itself and contribute to a system that comprised and/or impacted their day-to-day work lives.

Connected Agile Frameworks


AIOps is the application of artificial intelligence to IT operations. It has become particularly useful for modern IT management in hybridized, distributed, and dynamic environments. AIOps has become a key operational component of modern digital-based organizations, built around software and algorithms.


AgileSHIFT is a framework that prepares individuals for transformational change by creating a culture of agility.

Agile Methodology

Agile started as a lightweight development method compared to heavyweight software development, which is the core paradigm of the previous decades of software development. By 2001 the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was born as a set of principles that defined the new paradigm for software development as a continuous iteration. This would also influence the way of doing business.

Agile Program Management

Agile Program Management is a means of managing, planning, and coordinating interrelated work in such a way that value delivery is emphasized for all key stakeholders. Agile Program Management (AgilePgM) is a disciplined yet flexible agile approach to managing transformational change within an organization.

Agile Project Management

Agile project management (APM) is a strategy that breaks large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. In the APM methodology, each project is completed in small sections – often referred to as iterations. Each iteration is completed according to its project life cycle, beginning with the initial design and progressing to testing and then quality assurance.

Agile Modeling

Agile Modeling (AM) is a methodology for modeling and documenting software-based systems. Agile Modeling is critical to the rapid and continuous delivery of software. It is a collection of values, principles, and practices that guide effective, lightweight software modeling.

Agile Business Analysis

Agile Business Analysis (AgileBA) is certification in the form of guidance and training for business analysts seeking to work in agile environments. To support this shift, AgileBA also helps the business analyst relate Agile projects to a wider organizational mission or strategy. To ensure that analysts have the necessary skills and expertise, AgileBA certification was developed.

Agile Leadership

Agile leadership is the embodiment of agile manifesto principles by a manager or management team. Agile leadership impacts two important levels of a business. The structural level defines the roles, responsibilities, and key performance indicators. The behavioral level describes the actions leaders exhibit to others based on agile principles. 

Bimodal Portfolio Management

Bimodal Portfolio Management (BimodalPfM) helps an organization manage both agile and traditional portfolios concurrently. Bimodal Portfolio Management – sometimes referred to as bimodal development – was coined by research and advisory company Gartner. The firm argued that many agile organizations still needed to run some aspects of their operations using traditional delivery models.

Business Innovation Matrix

Business innovation is about creating new opportunities for an organization to reinvent its core offerings, revenue streams, and enhance the value proposition for existing or new customers, thus renewing its whole business model. Business innovation springs by understanding the structure of the market, thus adapting or anticipating those changes.

Business Model Innovation

Business model innovation is about increasing the success of an organization with existing products and technologies by crafting a compelling value proposition able to propel a new business model to scale up customers and create a lasting competitive advantage. And it all starts by mastering the key customers.

Constructive Disruption

A consumer brand company like Procter & Gamble (P&G) defines “Constructive Disruption” as: a willingness to change, adapt, and create new trends and technologies that will shape our industry for the future. According to P&G, it moves around four pillars: lean innovation, brand building, supply chain, and digitalization & data analytics.

Continuous Innovation

That is a process that requires a continuous feedback loop to develop a valuable product and build a viable business model. Continuous innovation is a mindset where products and services are designed and delivered to tune them around the customers’ problem and not the technical solution of its founders.

Design Sprint

A design sprint is a proven five-day process where critical business questions are answered through speedy design and prototyping, focusing on the end-user. A design sprint starts with a weekly challenge that should finish with a prototype, test at the end, and therefore a lesson learned to be iterated.

Design Thinking

Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.


DevOps refers to a series of practices performed to perform automated software development processes. It is a conjugation of the term “development” and “operations” to emphasize how functions integrate across IT teams. DevOps strategies promote seamless building, testing, and deployment of products. It aims to bridge a gap between development and operations teams to streamline the development altogether.

Dual Track Agile

Product discovery is a critical part of agile methodologies, as its aim is to ensure that products customers love are built. Product discovery involves learning through a raft of methods, including design thinking, lean start-up, and A/B testing to name a few. Dual Track Agile is an agile methodology containing two separate tracks: the “discovery” track and the “delivery” track.

Feature-Driven Development

Feature-Driven Development is a pragmatic software process that is client and architecture-centric. Feature-Driven Development (FDD) is an agile software development model that organizes workflow according to which features need to be developed next.

eXtreme Programming

eXtreme Programming was developed in the late 1990s by Ken Beck, Ron Jeffries, and Ward Cunningham. During this time, the trio was working on the Chrysler Comprehensive Compensation System (C3) to help manage the company payroll system. eXtreme Programming (XP) is a software development methodology. It is designed to improve software quality and the ability of software to adapt to changing customer needs.

ICE Scoring

The ICE Scoring Model is an agile methodology that prioritizes features using data according to three components: impact, confidence, and ease of implementation. The ICE Scoring Model was initially created by author and growth expert Sean Ellis to help companies expand. Today, the model is broadly used to prioritize projects, features, initiatives, and rollouts. It is ideally suited for early-stage product development where there is a continuous flow of ideas and momentum must be maintained.

Innovation Funnel

An innovation funnel is a tool or process ensuring only the best ideas are executed. In a metaphorical sense, the funnel screens innovative ideas for viability so that only the best products, processes, or business models are launched to the market. An innovation funnel provides a framework for the screening and testing of innovative ideas for viability.

Innovation Matrix

According to how well defined is the problem and how well defined the domain, we have four main types of innovations: basic research (problem and domain or not well defined); breakthrough innovation (domain is not well defined, the problem is well defined); sustaining innovation (both problem and domain are well defined); and disruptive innovation (domain is well defined, the problem is not well defined).

Innovation Theory

The innovation loop is a methodology/framework derived from the Bell Labs, which produced innovation at scale throughout the 20th century. They learned how to leverage a hybrid innovation management model based on science, invention, engineering, and manufacturing at scale. By leveraging individual genius, creativity, and small/large groups.

Lean vs. Agile

The Agile methodology has been primarily thought of for software development (and other business disciplines have also adopted it). Lean thinking is a process improvement technique where teams prioritize the value streams to improve it continuously. Both methodologies look at the customer as the key driver to improvement and waste reduction. Both methodologies look at improvement as something continuous.

Lean Startup

A startup company is a high-tech business that tries to build a scalable business model in tech-driven industries. A startup company usually follows a lean methodology, where continuous innovation, driven by built-in viral loops is the rule. Thus, driving growth and building network effects as a consequence of this strategy.


Kanban is a lean manufacturing framework first developed by Toyota in the late 1940s. The Kanban framework is a means of visualizing work as it moves through identifying potential bottlenecks. It does that through a process called just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing to optimize engineering processes, speed up manufacturing products, and improve the go-to-market strategy.

Rapid Application Development

RAD was first introduced by author and consultant James Martin in 1991. Martin recognized and then took advantage of the endless malleability of software in designing development models. Rapid Application Development (RAD) is a methodology focusing on delivering rapidly through continuous feedback and frequent iterations.

Scaled Agile

Scaled Agile Lean Development (ScALeD) helps businesses discover a balanced approach to agile transition and scaling questions. The ScALed approach helps businesses successfully respond to change. Inspired by a combination of lean and agile values, ScALed is practitioner-based and can be completed through various agile frameworks and practices.

Spotify Model

The Spotify Model is an autonomous approach to scaling agile, focusing on culture communication, accountability, and quality. The Spotify model was first recognized in 2012 after Henrik Kniberg, and Anders Ivarsson released a white paper detailing how streaming company Spotify approached agility. Therefore, the Spotify model represents an evolution of agile.

Test-Driven Development

As the name suggests, TDD is a test-driven technique for delivering high-quality software rapidly and sustainably. It is an iterative approach based on the idea that a failing test should be written before any code for a feature or function is written. Test-Driven Development (TDD) is an approach to software development that relies on very short development cycles.


Timeboxing is a simple yet powerful time-management technique for improving productivity. Timeboxing describes the process of proactively scheduling a block of time to spend on a task in the future. It was first described by author James Martin in a book about agile software development.


Scrum is a methodology co-created by Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland for effective team collaboration on complex products. Scrum was primarily thought for software development projects to deliver new software capability every 2-4 weeks. It is a sub-group of agile also used in project management to improve startups’ productivity.


Scrumban is a project management framework that is a hybrid of two popular agile methodologies: Scrum and Kanban. Scrumban is a popular approach to helping businesses focus on the right strategic tasks while simultaneously strengthening their processes.

Scrum Anti-Patterns

Scrum anti-patterns describe any attractive, easy-to-implement solution that ultimately makes a problem worse. Therefore, these are the practice not to follow to prevent issues from emerging. Some classic examples of scrum anti-patterns comprise absent product owners, pre-assigned tickets (making individuals work in isolation), and discounting retrospectives (where review meetings are not useful to really make improvements).

Scrum At Scale

Scrum at Scale (Scrum@Scale) is a framework that Scrum teams use to address complex problems and deliver high-value products. Scrum at Scale was created through a joint venture between the Scrum Alliance and Scrum Inc. The joint venture was overseen by Jeff Sutherland, a co-creator of Scrum and one of the principal authors of the Agile Manifesto.

Stretch Objectives

Stretch objectives describe any task an agile team plans to complete without expressly committing to do so. Teams incorporate stretch objectives during a Sprint or Program Increment (PI) as part of Scaled Agile. They are used when the agile team is unsure of its capacity to attain an objective. Therefore, stretch objectives are instead outcomes that, while extremely desirable, are not the difference between the success or failure of each sprint.


The waterfall model was first described by Herbert D. Benington in 1956 during a presentation about the software used in radar imaging during the Cold War. Since there were no knowledge-based, creative software development strategies at the time, the waterfall method became standard practice. The waterfall model is a linear and sequential project management framework. 

Read Also: Business Models Guide, Sumo Logic Business Model, Snowflake

InnovationAgile MethodologyLean StartupBusiness Model InnovationProject Management.

Read Next: SWOT AnalysisPersonal SWOT AnalysisTOWS MatrixPESTEL

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