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 – 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 – 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:

  1. 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. 
  2. Engagement – 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.
  3. Innovation – 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.

Related concepts to participatory design

Psychosizing is a form of market analysis where the size of the market is guessed based on the targeted segments’ psychographics. In that respect, according to psychosizing analysis, we have five types of markets: microniches, niches, markets, vertical markets, and horizontal markets. Each will be shaped by the characteristics of the underlying main customer type.
Customer experience maps are visual representations of every encounter a customer has with a brand. On a customer experience map, interactions called touchpoints visually denote each interaction that a business has with its consumers. Typically, these include every interaction from the first contact to marketingbranding, sales, and customer support.
The customer journey – sometimes called the buyer or user journey – tells the customer experience with a businessbrandproduct, 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.
360-degree feedback is a comprehensive performance feedback strategy for employees. Traditionally, performance feedback was solely given by the employee’s direct superior. In 360 degree feedback, however, anonymous feedback is given by a range of individuals that the employee has a working relationship with. These include managers, colleagues, and in some cases, customers.
Switching costs consist of the costs incurred by customers to change a product or service toward another similar product and service. In some cases, switching costs can be monetary (perhaps, improving a cheaper product), but in many other cases, those are based on the effort and perception that it takes to move from a brand to another.
Customer development is a formal process of identifying potential customers and determining how to meet their needs using testable hypotheses. Entrepreneur and business professor Steve Blank highlighted the Customer Development Manifesto principles in The Startup Owner’s Manual as the core principles for modern startups.

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