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Come Together: Reasons to Include Participatory Design in Your Research Process

Strategies for working with your participants beyond interviews and why their partnership is extremely valuable. 

Words by Nikki Anderson, Visuals by Kate Degman

I have always been against focus groups, mainly because they are challenging to properly facilitate and can give a team false insights.

For years, I operated under the idea that users should not be a part of our process. Yes, I could run interviews and usability tests. Still, I wouldn't involve users any further than that. No focus groups about the designs or what people would love to use in the future, and no engaging people beyond the scope I was comfortable with.

But when I started my first forage into the freelance world, I was contacted by a company and agreed to their project before diving deeper into the details (who could pass up their first promising freelance opportunity?).

In our initial call, they said they wanted to run a participatory design study and my jaw couldn't have dropped to the floor faster. I had never done a participatory design project, and they went against most of the rules I set myself for not involving participants in the design process.

Thankfully, I had lovely research friends who helped me understand what I was doing and ensured I didn't mess up the project entirely.

Little did I know, this experience opened me up to understanding the benefits of including participants within the process and varying methods beyond one-on-one interviews and usability testing. This was the project that helped me feel more comfortable exploring different approaches in my future projects!

What is participatory design?

Participatory design, also known as co-design, co-creation, or cooperative design, stems from a Scandinavian approach to systems design ('cooperative design').

This approach emphasized designers and users actively working together to improve the quality of working life. In current terms, this means bringing the participant into the process beyond interviewing or usability testing.

Instead of the participant answering questions or giving feedback and opinions on screens, they are doing things within your time together. So while interviews can feel relatively passive, participatory design is very active. You engage the participants to help you design the right solutions for them.

This is important because you can go beyond the limits of interviews and usability tests by engaging users in this way. In addition, co-design helps to ensure that we include users' perspectives in knowledge development, idea generation, and product development.

If you want to do user-centered design or have a user-centered approach to product development, there is no better way to put your user at the center than participatory design.

How to conduct participatory design

The most common use of participatory design is during the design phase, but you can co-design with users during any stage, including more generative or discovery research.

However, just like all research projects, starting with a research plan can help determine the best tools to use.

Begin with research goals

There are many approaches and activities within the scope of co-design, each one with a slightly different deliverable or outcome. With this variability, we must understand what we need at the end of our research project.

For this, you can ask yourself and your team:

  • What type of information do we need to make decisions?
  • What kind of data do we want from users?
  • What questions do we need to answer at the end of the study?
  • What type of deliverables would help the team make better decisions?

For instance, if we are looking to understand people's product usage over time, a participatory design study wouldn't make sense because we could never get this information with this method. Same with getting feedback on screens, as usability testing is better suited to get this data.

Instead, these are the goals I match to participatory design:

  • Creating maps/journeys of processes, routines, or concepts the user is familiar with
  • Understanding emotional responses or connections on specific concepts or ideas
  • Exploring initial concepts before creating prototypes

With these goals in mind, I then choose from the many co-design activity options:

Creating journey maps

A few years back, I was tasked with creating journey maps for one of our personas. In the past, I'd used one-on-one interviewing with no stimuli to develop these types of journeys.

Inspired by others, I decided to give participatory design a try. I abandoned my standard conversation and pulled together some markers and sheets of paper. When the participant came into the session, I spent the first 15 minutes conducting the common conversational interview, and then we went on to the activity.

I brought out sheets of paper and markers and asked each participant to draw out their journey into as many stages as they thought was relevant. I kept a pen in my hand but tried not to use it.

I also reminded them that they didn't have to worry about being an artist, which quelled some anxiety around the activity. Each participant thoroughly enjoyed the process and, once they finished the stages, we went on to draw an emotion line, which they then explained. Finally, added context to the rest of the map such as goals, tasks, and pain points.

After these interviews, I collected the visual responses and created two different journey maps from the data. We then invited participants back to comment on the maps, highlighting things we didn't include or misrepresented.

In the end, we had two fantastic journey maps. I realized that including the user in the process led to fewer question marks and iterations on the journey maps.

Understanding emotional responses

I was doing some freelance work for a company when the topic of end-of-life care came up. Now, I've researched some loaded issues, but this one was difficult.

The participants were a mix of people who had lost someone, been diagnosed with a terminal disease, or were the children of someone diagnosed with an illness that rendered them unable to care for themselves.

While I am comfortable talking about anything under the sun and even sometimes shedding tears, I felt I needed something more for this conversation.

Instead of having people explain their feelings through a conversation, I brought together a lot of magazines, words, and photos. The participants built a collage of how they were feeling during each step of the journey for end-of-life care.

They then used the stimuli they made to explain their feelings to me. These stimuli allowed them to express themselves beyond what they could have done in a conversation and gave us extra insight into their emotions.

Exploring initial concepts

Let’s say your team has a few early concept ideas in mind but has yet to create anything solid. In this case, a participatory design study is a great candidate because there is still enough space for exploration in the prototypes.

During one of my earlier roles, we toyed with the idea of allowing users to switch out ingredients when they ordered a particular meal. This switch would cause the static weekly meal menu to have a more personalized feel.

The idea was still very new when I suggested that users come in to test it. We created a few paper prototypes with initial thoughts but gave participants sticky notes, pens, and pencils, encouraging them to draw and provide tangible feedback.

Not only was it enjoyable to sit with participants and sketch through ideas, but it was also incredibly fruitful. We started with a generative interview on the concept and ended with the sketching, which brought many ideas to the team that we were later able to usability test.

These are just some examples of using participatory design with these goals, and there are many out there. For instance, I also love storyboarding as a participatory design method. Two wonderful sources for co-design activities are Gamestorming by Dave Gray and Innovation Games by Luke Hohmann.

Think about preparation

Participatory design is a great way to engage with your users in a slightly different fashion. Always think through the various tools you need and the audience.

For example, when I conduct a participatory design study with older participants, they might not understand the concept of prototypes and wireframes, so I try to structure it differently.

Additionally, participatory design studies with children should be geared more toward collages, storyboarding, or even bringing in dolls for stimuli as they have more difficulty explaining their feelings than adults.

Most of my participatory design sessions are around one-and-a-half to two hours to include the one-on-one interview session and the activity. Activities can take time to explain and for participants to warm up to, so extra buffer time is essential. I also try to use a larger room for these sessions, as there are many materials, and I don't want participants to feel cramped.

It is possible to continue doing participatory design in a remote setting, but you might need a bit more creativity. For example, for my remote sessions, I have set up a Miro board with many images for a collage or included sketched wireframes with sticky notes for a "paper prototype" feel. It is doable but takes an extra step in preparation.

Keep in mind

Participatory design is not about getting your users to do your job for you and designing an entire interface. Instead, participatory design is another way to understand your users' needs and engage them in the exploration process by introducing stimuli. It is a flexible approach that will give your team a broader scope of ideas rather than focusing on a solution.

Nikki Anderson-Stanier is the founder of User Research Academy and a qualitative researcher with 9 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. 

To get even more UXR nuggets, check out her user research membershipfollow her on LinkedIn, or subscribe to her Substack.

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