Participatory Design

Participatory design is an approach to computer system development that emphasizes active user participation through exploratory, experience-driven design techniques. Participatory Design traces its roots to Scandinavian work with trade unions in the 60's and 70's, but its ancestry also includes Action Research and Socio-technical Design.

Since the late 1980ies North American HCI research communities have shown a growing interest in obtaining a more active user involvement in system design. This is mirrored in the arrangement of a series of conferences dedicated to the topic "Participatory Design" (PDC). Moreover, CHI and CSCW conferences have paper sessions and panels dedicated to Participatory design and Cooperative design issues. A central concern of the PDC conferences was to import European, and, in particular Scandinavian, ideas of user involvement into American settings where the societal conditions are different. This transformation has not been straight-forward, but several designers and researchers in the USA have taken up the challenge and developed their own approaches (e.g. within the framework of CPSR). Furthermore, user participation has gained widespread acceptance in the European context as a way of gaining knowledge about work, and various roles for user participation have made their way into the textbooks. The main argument for user participation in these contexts is that the quality of the computer application is improved. The main European figure in bringing participatory design "out of Scandinavia" has, however, been Christiane Floyd, who on top of developing her own participatory software engineering approach has written extensively about the Scandinavian approaches.


Four important principles for participatory design activities and techniques have developed: cooperating, experimenting, contextualizing, and iterating.

A. Cooperating

Participatory design stresses the issue of cooperation within system development projects. Cooperation stresses two fundamental principles: the "egalitarian" principle which assumes that all stake-holders within a design process are juxtapositioned, all are experts in certain areas and more like novices in others; and the co-working principle which assumes that a design process is a learning process for both computer systems developers and users.

Participatory design is seen as the establishment of a new work practice for the duration of a system development project. In this work practice, a third principle may unfold, the potentials of multi-voicedness, where the participants basically address the same issues, but from very diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

B. Experimenting

The emphasis on experimentation is an attempt to take seriously the idea that the design process always takes place in the space between new possibilities and current conditions. Experimentation has the dual purpose of inventing the new at the same time as it has to ensure that it is both desirable and realizable for current work practice.

To facilitate the creation of qualitative new applications and uses, Participatory design makes extensive use of exploration regarding various possible technologies, its potential uses, and ways of organizing work. Often, the exploration takes the concrete form of game-like activities to support idea generation by liberating people from too many constraints in current work. In general, Participatory design makes use of very tangible artifacts in these activities.

The other side of the coin, to ensure that new ideas are or may be embedded within current conditions, is often supported by two principles both aimed at concretizing and contextualizing design visions. The one is to accomplish experiments with visions, not in a laboratory, but in real work or, when this is inappropriate, by conduction the experiments in simulated work situations. The other is hands-on experience: to support users to experience future computer applications in use, i.e. to get hands-on the future by concretizing the various future possibilities. Mock-ups, prototypes and various games and simulations are all examples of such concretizations.

C. Contextualizing

Participatory design takes its starting point in the particular work setting and situations in which the new computer application is to be applied. Participatory design focuses on these situations in an iterative process of design and use. Furthermore, since use is developing continuously, computer systems development goes on as long as the computer application is in use, and Participatory design specifically aims at dealing with this.

The constitution of the design situation as well as the situations of use has many social as well as technical aspects. Participatory design is particularly concerned with the way in which designers and users can be aided in considering and reconsidering the outcome of creating something new, as far as the social setting of use is concerned.

System development in general, and Participatory design in particular, involve different kinds of participants: professional designers, users, managers, etc. These participants have a variety of backgrounds, with partly overlapping, and partly conflicting interests and concerns. Participatory design needs to deal with this variety of interests. It is further dependent on existing and available hardware technology, etc., and the various groups may have very different ideas of how the future work ought to be supported. Participatory design proposes that these conditions and conflicts need to be dealt with specifically.

D. Iterating

In design, we need to hold on to something not-yet-known, the future product, as seen from the point of view of design, and the future instrument of work as seen from the point of view of use. Participatory design argues that this is most preferably done using artifacts that can be experienced by users as well as designers, i.e. through prototypes, etc. Shaping these artifacts gives design a practical purpose, allowing the participants, at least temporarily, to move in a certain direction. This is quite different from the idealised, goal-determined design process prescribed by many design methods, in which the goal (the future computer application) may be determined once and for all at the beginning of the design process, lacking only to be refined and detailed through the rest of the process. Designers co-operate with each other, and use artifacts as a basis for delegating work. In Participatory design there is a focus on realization early and throughout the process, i.e. programming of early prototypes and conversion of example material may appear in early stages, and qua cooperation, Participatory design argues for little division of work in the system development process. Recognizing that a certain division of work in unavoidable, the approach advocates overlap between members of the analysis, design and realization groups. This is in order to compensate for the experience that abstract specifications are insufficient for rendering insight about a computer application and its use context.