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When Participatory Design makes sense

In the course of writing my PhD proposal to the disciplinary council of my faculty, I had to define which kind of project could be appropriate for doing  Participatory Design research. Not every project can be participatory or profit from being participatory. There are specific situations where Participatory Design makes sense, but I couldn’t find a straightforward criteria for that.

Photo courtesy of Change by Design book

Douglas Schuler writes on his Liberating Voices pattern:

[Participatory Design] is intended to be used in any situation in which a service, policy, or other artifact is being designed. Those who will use the artifact and those who will be affected by it should be included in the design process.

I think this is too much generalization. I’ve seen many projects in which formal participation wouldn’t make sense. But Schuler acknowledges that:

Participatory design is not a panacea. People may not want to participate; in many cases they quite plausibly determine that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. Participatory design can certainly be time-consuming and higher quality of the end product cannot be guaranteed. Participatory design projects can go awry in a number of ways (as do traditional and more orthodox software development efforts.)

Michael Muller and many others have acknowledged that Participatory Design arose in Scandinavia because it’s principles matched societal values, in other words, that Participatory Design depends highly on culture and for that reason it could not be fully applied in the United States. I totally agree on this but, even in Scandinavia, not every project is participatory.

Because I could not find a good criteria list, I made my own.

1. Design phase is not finished

This is obvious, but important to mention. If there is nothing left to design, it’s not Participatory Design, but some kind of consultation. If it’s partially done, participants might spend a lot of time questioning the imposed constraints.

2. Shared or public thing

People participates on what they care. Private things are to the account of their owners and there is not much controversy about them. Participation makes sense when private things gets into the public, either in shared or individual use.

3. Either a willing from the powered to share power or a willing from the disempowered to claim power

Participatory Design can start top-down or bottom-up. Dominant groups might want to update their legitimation at the top at the same time that dominated groups are interested in being recognized as stakeholders. That is rare, but it happens. In most cases, motivation comes from one side of the power struggle.

4. The success of the design depends on user commitment

When organizational change depends on the adoption of a system and users can potentially reject it, a common approach is to involve those users so as they can influence system’s design. Participatory Design can be conducted in a way that generates commitment with the use of the system, since users have the opportunity to decide how it will work.

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