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How Participatory Design Democratizes Insights and Drives Innovation

Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Even Steve Jobs held a similar sentiment as a visionary of his time: “Our job is to figure out what [users are] going to want before they do.”  But, if we challenge the very core assumption to these arguments-- that by asking users what they want, we won’t get anywhere inspiring or innovative--we may find that users know exactly what they want better than we do. They may just not know how to articulate their vision for the future within the structure of a traditional user interview, given the limited mode of participation.

To combat the potential limitations of an interview format and be aware of our own shortcomings as the interviewer, we go through loops of self-reflective (somewhat self-conscious) questions: Are we limiting the participant by only inviting them to participate through verbal expression? Are we restricting the full innovative potential of this conversation by asking questions that are what, we perceive, the most salient questions?

When the answer is yes, we realize that we do indeed need to create a more inclusive format for participants to participate so that their full contributive potential is seen. To truly push the boundaries of the innovation process, we must reflect and experiment with the traditional paths of user participation, namely user interviews. For that, we turn to participatory design.

Participatory design is an approach that has its roots in Scandinavia during the 1970s in reaction to a growing demand to include community input in workplace union matters. Contemporarily, it is most often utilized in projects that involve under-served communities that have a social impact mission. This is because participatory design inherently provides a platform and voice to marginalized users in the design process, which can help build empathy between the designer and the user by lowering the cultural barriers, and generate social value that brings lasting change and greater adoption. (1)

Participatory design is not a sole end-all-be-all rigid methodology. Instead, it is a source for inspiration, a mindset and philosophy. We turn to participatory design during many situations, including (but not limited to):

  • When our end-users are marginalized groups with unique, irreplaceable experiences that require deep cultural context to fully understand
  • When we need to build consensus and empathy across our stakeholders
  • When we are finding our creative juices tapped dry using traditional methodologies in an innovation projects

If you find yourself in these scenarios, participatory design can empower your participants to express themselves more freely than an interview format and thus, help uncover hidden gems of insights. Participatory design invites participation through different mediums of expression (inclusive tools and new skills, not just verbal communication) that enable users to co-create a better future for themselves. These mediums can truly be anything, and is only limited by your creativity. It can be an interactive workshop where a group of people are sketching ideas and taping together paper prototypes. It can be an open conversation with just two people, where we are mapping their user journey together on a white board. It can be two people acting out a future-state service model with observers taking notes.  

Currently, the product development and innovation world can be technocratic and market-dictated. By democratizing the user-feedback process and creating an inclusive environment with participatory design, we lay the crucial foundations for innovation (2). There is hard evidence that demonstrates the value that users can bring into the innovation process when they are given the opportunity to ideate and create. Participatory Design’s strength is creating an inclusive mindset, where the “user” is not just the person actually using the product, but anyone who is impacted by the product from the end to end journey. Enos (1962) observed that all notable innovations in oil refining were developed by user collectives (3). Empirical studies conducted by Von Hippel (2004) show that 10% to 40% of users engage in modifying products on their own (4). MIT’s D-Lab Creative Capability Building trainings have had enormous impact on communities across Uganda, reducing overall labor by over 50% through tools designed to alleviate labor (5).

Even if your company is not a public sector or social impact organization, participatory design may be the right method in developing innovative ideas if you’re finding yourself turning over the same stones again and again. Fear not, participatory design takes on many forms. You can think of it as a strategic mindset that can be employed with end-users, stakeholders, or even your own internal team during ideation and collaboration sessions. PD lends itself to the ethos that “Good ideas can come from anywhere.” You can generally think about PD three ways (6):

  1. You can have a “design with” approach, where you provide an avenue and space for participants to provide their input and generate ideas and concepts by facilitating interactive activities that span mediums (e.g. role-playing, paper prototyping, sketching). This is the most common form of participatory design in web design since it takes less resources and time commitment from users.
  2. You can have a “design by” approach,  where you empower your users with design skills and greater responsibility to the final outcome of the product. This is appropriate when the success of the project requires organic adoption and community engagement to guarantee the sustainability of the solution. You need to consider a compensation shift when your user starts to act more as a consultant on the team rather than just a pure user.
  3. You can have a “design for” approach, where you involve users in key moments of the design process and integrate their feedback, perspectives, and attitudes into the design. While counterintuitive, user interviews fits under this category, so yes, user interviews are a form of participatory design if implemented with a PD mindset.

Participatory design is not a strict process that requires rigid frameworks or prescriptive activities. Instead, think of participatory design as an avenue for mutual learning. Enter any conversation with a stakeholder or user, or even teammate, with a mindset of mutual learning and take on the perspective that there are alternate perspectives to technology, industry, and society. You will be more likely to find and appreciate the surprising, assumption-challenging gems along the journey that might inform your next big idea.

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Alison Yu

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