Participatory Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Participatory Design and collection of videos and articles

What is Participatory Design?

Participatory design is a collaborative design approach that involves end-users in the design process. Its aim is to create products and services that better meet the needs and expectations of users by applying their knowledge and experiences.

Participatory design is also known as cooperative design, co-design or community design. Various fields use it, including architecture, urban planning, UX and product design.

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The Principles of Participatory Design

Participatory design is built on the principles of collaboration, co-creation, and empowerment. Users contribute to the design process, which allows them to provide feedback, suggest ideas, and participate in decision-making. The goal is to create products and services that accommodate users’ needs and help them achieve their objectives.

Key Aspects of Participatory Design

This method arose from a need to diversify educational backgrounds and life experiences for designs used by a broad range of people. Tech industries have traditionally struggled over déformation professionnelle, or professional bias, and participatory design is a solution. However, designers need to adhere to these principles to make truly participatory designs:

Inclusion: Include a diverse range of participants who will be affected by or interact with the product, system or problem that needs to be solved. This includes end-users, designers, developers, domain experts, and other stakeholders.

Collaboration: Involve collaborative activities where participants can contribute their knowledge, insights, and ideas. This collaboration can take various forms, such as workshops, interviews, brainstorming sessions, and co-design exercises.

Empowerment: Empower users and stakeholders to actively influence design decisions. Their input and feedback are valued and incorporated into the design process, giving them as much ownership and control as designers.

Iteration: Iterate; the design process is iterative, with continuous feedback and refinement. Participants should help evaluate prototypes, provide feedback, and suggest improvements. This iterative approach helps ensure that the final design meets user needs effectively.

Contextual understanding: Listen to the participants to understand the context in which the final product or system will be used. Learn the cultural, social, and environmental factors to create solutions tailored to their specific context.

User advocacy: Allow users to advocate for themselves throughout the design process. Address power imbalances and ensure design decisions prioritize users' interests and goals. The goal is to create an equal and safe space for collaboration and co-design.

Participatory Design and UX Design

Participatory design is a natural complement to UX design because it actively seeks user feedback and input throughout the design process. UX design is most often user-focused, or human-centered. In the early stages of development, designers will learn about the problem users have and how it affects them. 

UX designers can use those insights into user needs, preferences, and behaviors, to inform design decisions and help to create products, services, or systems that are more user-friendly and effective. However, during development, designers will only directly involve users when a new prototype needs to be tested.

In contrast, participatory design involves users in the design process itself. The end-users will often be in the room for ideation sessions, and provide design feedback throughout the process. It democratizes who makes decisions for the people the solutions affect most.

The trade-off is that it requires a lot of time and effort from your participants, so this approach is usually most successful with groups that are already passionate and knowledgeable, or are professionals themselves in the field you work in.

Origins of Participatory Design

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In this video, Victor Udoewa, Service Design Lead at NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer Research (SBIR/STTR) Program, discusses participatory design's origins. Victor makes the case that, in many ways, participatory design is how humans naturally go about solutions. In one way or another, it has been around as long as humans have.

In more recent history, participatory design comes from the work of Scandinavian researchers in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI).

Participatory Design in Practice

Participatory design is not necessarily elaborate. It is primarily about involving users in the design process. Watch Laura Klein, UX/Product Lead and author of Build Better Products, discuss card sorting as an example of participatory design.

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The Benefits of Participatory Design

Participatory design has several benefits for both designers and users.

  • Improved user satisfaction: Participatory design can lead to products, services, or systems that are better suited to users' needs. When designers involve users in the design process, they get a deeper understanding of user needs and preferences that they may have otherwise overlooked, which can lead to a better user experience.

  • Increased user engagement: When users participate in the design process, they are more likely to feel invested in the final product, service, or system. This participation can lead to increased user engagement and greater ownership over the outcome.

  • Reduced development costs: Participatory design can help identify design flaws early in the process, saving time and money in the long run. Users involved in the design process will help designers catch potential issues before they become costly problems.

  • Improved innovation: Participatory design helps designers gain insights into new and innovative problem-solving methods. Users often have unique perspectives and ideas that can lead to breakthroughs in design.

  • Increased social inclusion: Participatory design can help to ensure that products, services, or systems are accessible and inclusive to all users, including those who might otherwise be marginalized or excluded.

Participatory Design in the Real World 

In the early 2000s, the municipal authorities in Bogotá, Colombia, embarked on a participatory design project to improve the public transportation system. The city's leaders recognized that the existing system was inadequate, inefficient, and often dangerous, and they wanted to involve the city's residents in designing a better approach.

A TransMilenio bus.

© TransMelenio, Fair Use

The "TransMilenio" project involved a series of community meetings, workshops, and design charrettes (intensive, hands-on workshops that bring together community members and people from different disciplines and backgrounds). Residents could provide input and feedback on the new system's design. The city's leaders also worked with transportation experts and urban planners to create an effective and user-friendly system.

As a result of the participatory design process, the TransMilenio system had features important to the city's residents, such as dedicated bus lanes, stations with high platforms for easy boarding, and pre-paid tickets to speed up boarding times. The system has since reduced travel times, improved safety, and increased residents' access to jobs and services.

The TransMilenio transport service incorporated riders’ requirements for dedicated bus lanes and stations with high platforms for easy boarding.

© Felipe Restrepo Acosta, CC BY-SA 3.0

The success of the TransMilenio project has inspired other cities worldwide to adopt participatory design methods to improve their transportation systems, demonstrating the power of involving users in the design process to create more effective and user-friendly solutions.

When Should You Use Participatory Design?

Participatory design has several benefits for designers and users, and has much in common with UX design. Designers can create more user-centered, effective, and socially inclusive products, services, or systems when users are engaged in the design process.

This approach is best used for products or services that affect many different types of people, like city or government projects or services.

Smaller grassroots-led projects might bring on designers to engage with them in participatory design projects and vice versa.

However, participatory design requires a heavy investment by the end-user, which is not always likely or practical without strong incentives. It also requires a great deal of trust from the community you serve.

Learn More about Participatory Design

Watch Victor Udoewa’s Master Class on Radical Participatory Design.

The course Agile Methods for UX Design covers participatory design in agile methodology.

Explore participatory design with the Sanders & Stappers paper, Probes, toolkits and prototypes: three approaches to making in codesigning.

Software company Imaginary Cloud has written a blog on participatory design.

Check out MIT D-Lab’s blog on the benefits of participatory design

Read Science Direct’s definition of participatory design.

Some notable sources that discuss participatory design and its principles include:

Participatory Design: Principles and Practices by Douglas Schuler is A comprehensive overview of participatory design, covering its history, principles, methods, and case studies.

Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design by Jesper Simonsen and Toni Robertson explores the principles, methods, and tools of participatory design. It offers insights into facilitating collaborative design processes and includes real-world examples.

Questions related to Participatory Design

How does participatory design differ from traditional design approaches?

Participatory design actively involves stakeholders, especially end users, throughout the design process. This is in contrast with traditional design approaches that often rely on the designer's expertise with less direct user involvement. This method allows users to contribute ideas and feedback, ensuring the final product aligns closely with their needs and expectations. It emphasizes collaboration and co-creation, which fosters a sense of ownership among users and enhances satisfaction with the outcome. By involving users early on, participatory design helps avoid costly redesigns and ensures the product's usability and relevance, drawing on firsthand experiences and insights from those who will use it.

Learn more about participatory design in the Master Class, Radical Participatory Design: Insights From NASA’s Service Design Lead.

What are the key principles of participatory design?

The key principles of participatory design focus on collaboration, inclusivity, and empowerment throughout the design process. These principles include:

Co-creation: Designers and users work together to identify problems and develop solutions, ensuring that the final product meets user needs effectively.

Democratization of design: This principle gives all stakeholders, especially users, a voice in the design process, challenging the traditional notion that design decisions should solely rest with professionals.

Empathy and understanding: Participatory design emphasizes understanding users' experiences, needs, and contexts through direct engagement, which fosters a deep empathy that informs design choices.

Iterative process: It advocates for an iterative approach, where ideas are continuously refined and tested with users, allowing for adjustments based on feedback.

Transparency: Keeping the design process transparent ensures that all participants understand how decisions are made, fostering trust and collaboration.

Flexibility: Recognizing the diversity of users' needs, participatory design remains flexible to adapt to new insights and challenges that arise during the process.

These principles ensure that design outcomes are more user-centered, relevant, and sustainable by leveraging the collective expertise and perspectives of all stakeholders involved.

Learn more about participatory design in agile methodology in our course Agile Methods for UX Design.

How can participatory design be implemented in digital product development?

To implement participatory design in digital product development, follow these steps:

Involve users early: Engage with your target audience from the outset. Identify and recruit representative users who can provide diverse perspectives relevant to the product.

Conduct workshops and focus groups: Organize collaborative sessions where designers and users can co-create. Use these platforms for brainstorming, problem-solving, and exploring ideas together.

Use prototyping tools: Leverage prototyping tools to quickly turn ideas into tangible designs that users can interact with and provide feedback on. This iterative process helps refine concepts based on actual user input.

Facilitate continuous feedback: Establish mechanisms for ongoing user feedback throughout the development process, not just at set milestones. This could involve digital forums, regular testing sessions, or direct communication channels.

Empower user contributions: Create an environment where user contributions are valued and encouraged. Recognize and incorporate their insights as an integral part of the design process.

Iterate based on feedback: Use the feedback collected to make informed adjustments to the design. This iterative cycle of design, test, and refine should continue until the product meets the users' needs and expectations.

By implementing these steps, participatory design ensures that digital products are more user-centered, ultimately leading to more successful and satisfying outcomes for both users and developers.

Learn more about participatory design in agile methodology in our course Agile Methods for UX Design.

What challenges are associated with participatory design, and how can they be overcome?

Challenges associated with participatory design include managing diverse opinions, ensuring meaningful participation, and dealing with the additional time and resources required. Overcoming these challenges involves:

Effective communication: Establish clear communication channels and guidelines to manage and harmonize diverse opinions and expectations from various stakeholders.

Representation: Carefully select participants to ensure a broad representation of user types. Avoiding bias towards any particular group. This diversity helps to address a wide range of needs and perspectives.

Balance expertise and input: Value each participant's input, but also guide the process with professional expertise to maintain focus and direction.

Time and resources: Plan for the extra time and resources participatory design may require. This may involve setting realistic timelines and budgets that account for the iterative nature of participatory processes.

Tools and training: Equip participants with the tools and knowledge they need to contribute effectively. This may involve training sessions or introductory materials on the design process.

Iterative prototyping and testing: Use rapid prototyping and testing to make the design process tangible and actionable for participants, allowing for quick iterations based on feedback.

Participatory design can lead to more innovative, user-centered solutions when these challenges are addressed. 

Learn more about participatory design in the Master Class, Radical Participatory Design: Insights From NASA’s Service Design Lead.

Can participatory design improve user experience, and if so, how?

Participatory design can significantly improve user experience by involving users directly in the design process. This approach ensures that the product development is closely aligned with the users' needs, preferences, and behaviors. Here's how:

Enhances relevance: By incorporating user feedback early and continuously, products become more tailored to meet the actual needs and expectations of the target audience, enhancing the relevance of the design.

Increases usability: Direct user involvement helps identify usability issues early, allowing designers to address them before they become embedded in the final product. This leads to more intuitive and user-friendly designs.

Boosts satisfaction and engagement: When users contribute to the design process, they feel a sense of ownership and are more likely to be satisfied with the final outcome. This emotional investment can lead to higher engagement levels.

Fosters innovation: The diverse perspectives brought by participants can lead to innovative solutions that might not have been discovered through traditional design processes.

Reduces costs: Identifying issues and opportunities early in the design process can significantly reduce the need for costly redesigns later on.

Learn more about participatory design in agile methodology in our course Agile Methods for UX Design.

What tools and techniques are most effective in participatory design?

The most effective tools and techniques in participatory design prioritize collaboration, feedback, and iterative development. Here are some key approaches:

Workshops and co-design sessions: Facilitated sessions where users and designers collaborate to explore ideas and solutions. These can include brainstorming, sketching, and prototype feedback sessions.

Prototyping tools: Digital tools like Adobe XD, Sketch, and Figma enable quick creation and iteration of design concepts, which makes it easier for users to provide actionable feedback on tangible prototypes.

Surveys and questionnaires: These can be used to gather initial user input on needs and preferences before starting the design process or to gather feedback on prototypes.

User diaries and experience mapping: Techniques that involve users documenting their experiences with a product or service over time provide insights into daily usage and interaction patterns.

Card sorting: A method used to understand users' mental models helps to organize information architecture in a way that reflects how users think about content and categories.

Digital collaboration platforms: Tools like Miro or Trello facilitate remote collaboration, allowing users and designers to share ideas, feedback, and progress in real-time.

Learn more about participatory design in agile methodology in our course Agile Methods for UX Design.

How does participatory design contribute to innovation?

Participatory design fosters innovation by bringing diverse perspectives directly into the design process. By involving users, stakeholders, and team members from different backgrounds, it uncovers unique insights and needs that might not be evident through traditional design methods. This collaboration encourages the exploration of novel ideas and solutions, as participants share their experiences, challenges, and expectations.

The iterative nature of participatory design, with its emphasis on feedback and refinement, allows for the rapid testing and evolution of ideas. This process not only identifies the most promising solutions but also reveals unexpected opportunities for innovation. Furthermore, by democratizing the design process, participatory design breaks down the barriers between users and designers, creating a fertile ground for co-creation and inventive problem-solving.

Learn more about participatory design in the Master Class, Radical Participatory Design: Insights From NASA’s Service Design Lead.

What role do participants play in the design process within participatory design?

Participants play a crucial role in shaping the design process. They actively contribute ideas, feedback, and insights from the very beginning, which ensures that the product or service is developed with a deep understanding of user needs and contexts. Participants, often end-users, engage in activities such as workshops, interviews, and usability testing, offering firsthand perspectives that can challenge assumptions and reveal new opportunities for innovation.

Their involvement goes beyond mere consultation; participants co-create solutions with designers, influencing decisions about features, usability, and aesthetics. This collaborative approach allows for the exploration of diverse ideas and solutions, making the design process more dynamic and inclusive. Participants help tailor the design to better meet user expectations by contributing their experiences and preferences. This leads to more effective and satisfying outcomes.

Learn more about participatory design in the Master Class, Radical Participatory Design: Insights From NASA’s Service Design Lead.

What are some highly cited research on participatory design?

Ten Holter, C. (2022). Participatory design: Lessons and directions for responsible research and innovation. Journal of Responsible Innovation, 9(2), 275-290.

Halskov, K., & Hansen, N. B. (2015). The diversity of participatory design research practice at PDC 2002–2012. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 74, 81-92. 

Thinyane, M., Bhat, K., Goldkind, L., & Cannanure, V. K. (2018). Critical participatory design: Reflections on engagement and empowerment in a case of a community-based organization. In Proceedings of the 15th Participatory Design Conference: Full Papers - Volume 1 (PDC '18) (Article 2, pp. 1–10). Association for Computing Machinery. 

Van der Velden, M., & Mörtberg, C. (2015). Participatory design and design for values. In J. van den Hoven, P. Vermaas, & I. van de Poel (Eds.), Handbook of Ethics, Values, and Technological Design. Springer.

What are some well-regarded books on participatory design?

Anderson, K. L. (Ed.). (2022). Participatory Practice in Space, Place, and Service Design: Questions of Access, Engagement and Creative Experience (1st ed.). Vernon Press.

Bødker, S., Dindler, C., Iversen, O. S., & Smith, R. C. (2022). Participatory Design (1st ed.). Springer Cham.

Literature on Participatory Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Participatory Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Participatory Design

Take a deep dive into Participatory Design with our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman .

“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”

— Don Norman, Design for a Better World

Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:

  • Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.

  • Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.

  • Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.

  • Widespread misinformation that undermines education.

All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.

Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.

Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.

This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.

In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.

In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.

In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.

Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.

You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.

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