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Enliven Your Research Sessions with Participatory Design

Participatory design transforms passive questions and answers into an interactive, productive session. Here are some ways to facilitate it.

Words by Nikki Anderson-Stanier, Visuals by Thumy Phan

I don't know about you, but participatory design is one of my all-time favorite methods. What is more fun than heavily involving participants in a session? You move from a passive interview to a fun and interactive session. Not only is it enjoyable for researchers, but every participant I've gotten feedback from loved the session.

The first time I used participatory design, I was terrified. I had done two dry runs internally, but trying a new approach with participants is always nerve-wracking.

Our team was using participatory design to help us better understand users' journeys and mental models behind a particular process. I could have gone with 1:1 interviews, but this was a particularly complex journey. My visualization skills are next to none—I'm much better with words—so I wanted to enlist participants' help with actualizing their journey.

Not only was it a massive success in getting the information, but we had a skeleton of a journey map at the end of each session. It fast-forwarded our synthesis and deliverable creation. From then on, I tried to incorporate participatory design whenever possible.

First, what is participatory design?

Before diving into it, let's talk about participatory design.

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

Instead of the participant answering questions or giving feedback and opinions on screens, you work together. You engage the participants to envision their processes better, or gather active design input.

With participatory design, you can go beyond the limits of interviews and usability tests. Co-design helps to ensure that we include users' perspectives in knowledge development, idea generation, and product development.

The main goals associated with participatory design are:

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

Let's dive in

There are two main ways I will talk about using participatory design today:

  1. As a thought exercise
  2. As gathering feedback

Since participatory design is a more complex study to set up, I’ll dive into two concrete examples of how I've used this method in the past.

1. As a thought exercise

I was working for a company that dealt with end-of-life care. I've researched some loaded issues, but this one was difficult.

The organization didn't know much about the process someone goes through when deciding on end-of-life care. They had created a website based on a bit of market and competitive research, but they weren't sure how people felt about it.

They initially wanted me to get feedback on the website designs, but I advised them it would be helpful to take a step back. Before we assessed current designs, we needed to understand the journey people take, with the associated tasks, pain points, and needs in each step. This information would help us make better decisions moving forward.

Thankfully, the company agreed to this approach. Our goals became:

  1. Discover the end-to-end journey of people seeking end-of-life care
  2. Uncover the pain points and needs associated with seeking out and securing end-of-life care
  3. Understand what end-of-life care means to people and how they feel about the experience

While I am comfortable talking about anything under the sun and sometimes shedding tears (which I certainly did during this project), I needed an approach beyond 1:1 interviews for this conversation.

I decided to use participatory design. This method helped me understand and visualize the end-of-life care journey and gave the participants stimuli to work with when broaching this challenging subject.

I recruited a mix of participants:

  1. People who had been diagnosed with a terminal disease
  2. Children (now adults) of someone diagnosed with an illness that rendered them unable to care for themselves

I spoke to a sample size of 26 participants, 13 from each segment, to correctly identify the trends.

I had a bunch of magazines, word cutouts, photos, markers, sticky notes, and paper scattered on the table. When we started a session, I explained we would use this material to:

  • Visualize their end-of-life care journey in different stages
  • Explain their tasks, needs, and goals during each stage
  • Talk through their negative and positive feelings during each stage

Participants went to work building different journeys of how they currently experienced end-of-life care.

They 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.

During this part of the session, I asked (TEDW-based) probing questions like:

  • What were the top three tasks you were doing at this point?
  • What would it be if you had to give a name to this stage?
  • Talk me through some barriers or challenges you experienced.
  • Describe how these tasks felt.
  • Explain what you were looking for (needing) during this stage.

At the end of the session, we conducted a small exercise on new ways they could have received care that would alleviate some of their pain points. Similarly, they used the materials to brainstorm ways they could overcome their frustrations during this difficult time.

Ultimately, we were left with 26 journeys, filled with an unbelievable amount of information that helped to answer our goals. Additionally, we had some excellent ideas to prototype and test.

2. As gathering feedback

I was working with a meal-kit company when the possibility of participatory design came up. We were toying with the idea of letting customers switch out certain ingredients in their meal kits.

Don't like shrimp? Switch it out for chicken or beef! Hate mushrooms in your pasta? Add in extra tomatoes instead!

We had received quite a lot of feedback that the menu didn't feel personalized, and this was one of our responses. It was a way to add more choices without creating more potential meal ideas.

Initially, our first plan was to create a fully-functional prototype. This usability test would allow us to understand if people could grasp the concept and achieve the goal of switching out ingredients.

But I had a thought. Instead of starting so far down the line, I suggested we take a step back. Rather than a fully-fledged prototype, I recommended we ask participants to brainstorm about personalizing a menu. And then, we could ask more specifically about ingredient switches.

We went with it. Our goals became:

  • Understand how people define menu personalization and what it means to them
  • Uncover needs and pain points when it comes to personalizing menus
  • Evaluate how people perceive personalized menus, including ingredient switches

I planned the session to have two parts:

  1. Discuss and brainstorm menu personalization in general
  2. Get feedback on ingredient swapping

I brought pens, paper, sticky notes, and a basic storyboard for the ingredient swapping concept.

When the session started, I explained to participants that we would use all the props to brainstorm ways to personalize menus. I had some poorly-drawn, vague sketches to show them concrete examples of the activity—this put everyone at ease.

I started the session by asking them to define menu personalization and give me examples of when they encountered this concept. I then asked how they approached the process in the past and their experience.

After this initial discussion, we dove into the participatory design. I started with a quick sketching icebreaker, where the participants had to sketch their favorite food because aliens who only understood images had landed. This exercise helped ease the participants into the headspace of sketching.

Then, I prompted the participant with: "Show me a personalized menu experience that meets your needs and helps you avoid frustrations."

With that, the participants were off. If any of them struggled with drawing, I showed them my terrible sketches again. Eventually, everyone got into drawing.

During the exercise, I encouraged the participant to think out loud and explain what they were drawing and why. I asked probing questions like:

  • Explain what that means to you.
  • How might that help you with a need or problem you've experienced?
  • What problem might that solve for you?

After the initial brainstorm, we ended with the ingredient swap. I showed each participant a storyboard consisting of a few comic-like images. In this storyboard, a person was choosing a pasta dish but had an allergy to shrimp. However, they wanted protein for their pasta. The storyboard's last frame was an image of the person swapping shrimp for chicken.

I gave the participant the pens and sticky notes and asked them to start from the first image, changing and providing feedback on the storyboard. Participants were already primed to draw from the previous exercise, so they had no problem marking up the storyboard. I followed up with similar questions during that part to understand why they were changing certain parts of the storyboard.

In the end, we had several exciting ideas for personalizing menu experiences and fantastic feedback on the steps of swapping ingredients.

As a result, we moved forward with a better version of the ingredient swap and did a usability test before implementing the feature. We also had an innovation workshop that brought wonderful ideas for personalizing the meal-kit experience.

Participatory design is a great way to put your user at the center of your process. With this approach, participants give valuable feedback on processes and ideas without going too far down the line before gathering feedback. Using participatory design early on can ensure you create products and experiences that align with people's mental models.

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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