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GuidesUser experience (UX)Participatory design: Definition, methods, and implementation

Participatory design: Definition, methods, and implementation

Last updated

9 July 2023

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Jean Kaluza

Participatory design is a collaborative approach to designing a product that involves designers, users, and stakeholders.

Implementing everyone's opinions and commentary in the design process allows designers to devise a solution that meets the highest expectations.

This democratic process allows users and stakeholders to create something that works for them. 

Participatory design is applicable in many industries, including software development, architecture, urban planning, and healthcare.

Let's look at participatory design methods, definitions, and implementation.

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What is participatory design?

Participatory design is a methodology that allows real-world users to participate in the design process with professional designers. 

The goal of participatory design is to create a high-quality product, service, or system that suits the user's needs.

Other names for participatory design are:

  • Cooperative design

  • Community design

  • Co-design

  • Co-creation

Regardless of the name, the idea stays the same: Users and stakeholders participate in the design process.

Participatory design isn't a new concept. It originated in Germany and became popular in Scandinavia back in the 1980s. It spread to other places, including North America.

In the 2000s, co-design became popular for technological products.

Back then, a development method called Extreme Programming (XP) emerged. It implemented a collaborative approach to improve software quality. The group design methodology gained momentum among software developers. 

Large industry players that use participatory design in their work include:

  • Microsoft used participatory design to develop the interface for the Office suite

  • IKEA used participatory design to develop products and design store layouts

  • Airbnb used participatory design to improve website navigation and the UX

Community design can come in many shapes and sizes. Sometimes, it involves users in the entire project, allowing them to make significant changes and share responsibility. In other situations, the user's contribution is consultation only.

Key principles of participatory design

While your approach to participatory design can be drastically different from your competition's, the core principles remain the same:

Focus on the user 

User-centricity is the main principle of participatory design. Professional designers actively involve users and stakeholders in the process.

Mutual learning

Participatory design is the process of mutual learning between designers and stakeholders. Everyone's opinion and feedback carry weight.

Empowerment 

All participants have the opportunity to empower the design team to achieve set goals.

Inclusiveness

Gaining a wide range of opinions and perspectives enables designers to develop a high-quality user-centered product.

Stages

Participatory design has the elements of agile methodology. It involves taking smaller steps (iterations) to achieve bigger goals. 

User feedback and input contribute to the success of every stage.

Respect

All participants in the design process are valued, respected, and heard. The discussion should use strategies that remove potential inequality.

Explaining these principles to all participants can simplify the design process and help you create a strong discussion structure.

Pros and cons of participatory design

Over the past 40 years, participatory design has evolved to minimize downsides and maximize the benefits. 

While it may not apply to all projects, many product designers take advantage of user consultations and participation.

The main advantages of participatory design include:

Innovative approach

When you bring new people into the picture, you introduce unique opinions. 

Developers, designers, and engineers may need help driving innovation after working on a project for so long.

Meanwhile, users and stakeholders come from completely different backgrounds. They bring outside perspectives and a more intimate relationship with the product. As they need the solution, they're more likely to come up with something fresh.

While top-notch designers often immerse themselves in the client's pain points and needs, they may not always notice minor details that significantly affect user experience. That’s where users come in: They can point out nuances that designers miss.

User involvement helps designers "think outside the box" and provides insight into the UX to build empathy for users.  

Many companies that involve users in the development process boast excellent sales and approval ratings. 

When people understand that they're designing something for others and envision their experiences, they're more likely to have original ideas.

What you need to know about product innovation

Cost-effectiveness

When more people participate in the design, they are more likely to catch errors before they become costly. 

Even when users are consulting the designer, they can voice concerns about the design going in the wrong direction.

Checking each step of the design process allows users and stakeholders to provide valuable comments. Designers can implement their feedback in real time, reducing the costs associated with adjustments after the product is ready.

Participatory design can reduce expenses while maximizing the chances of immediate user satisfaction, eliminating expensive rework.

Engagement

Engaged users develop a sense of belonging and responsibility. This leads to higher satisfaction rates, faster journeys down the sales funnel, and brand ambassadorship.

When users contribute to a project, they have a stake in the process. This can help them feel closer to the brand and product. 

Closeness and loyalty encourage word-of-mouth marketing and increase customer lifetime value (LTV).

Better inclusion

Involving users in the process ensures products, systems, and services are inclusive to a wider audience. 

It's also an opportunity to connect with users with diverse perspectives. This can ensure you include important segments of your target audience.

While community design can have impressive benefits, it comes with a few downsides, including:

Time 

The more people you involve in the product design, the more opinions you need to hear and process. This can increase the time you spend on product development

However, the agile approach of design sprints can compensate for some of the time you may lose through participatory design nuances. 

Sample size

It's nearly impossible to involve a representative of each target audience segment in the design. 

Accordingly, you could be missing important opinions and facing dissatisfaction from another group of users.

Structure

Implementing user and stakeholder opinions into the design process requires a strong collaborative structure. 

Without a collaborative approach, the entire process can turn into chaos and cause delays and dissatisfaction among all parties.

Quality 

Focusing solely on user ideas is a great way to build empathy. However, designers may not have the resources to fulfill user desires. 

Clever solutions and knowledge of existing resources between designers and developers contribute greatly to success.

Participatory design is an excellent way to improve your products, services, and systems. 

However, it's not always the best methodology. It's up to the project manager and owner to decide whether this approach is beneficial.

When to use participatory design

Participatory design methods can often be expensive and time-consuming. 

Companies that choose this approach must ensure that the benefits are worth the inconvenience. 

While extensive market research and customer feedback can provide valuable insight into what users want, the profits may come from an entirely different demographic. 

This usually happens with certain B2B products when those making the purchase or signing extensive contracts for a product or service aren’t the end users.

One example of this is in the public K12 education sector. 

Those deciding what tech packages and services to purchase for schools won’t be the principals, secretaries, or teachers using the products every day. 

If the administration doesn't listen to user feedback or care enough to change the product, they'll keep purchasing the software, removing any need for innovation. 

This would disincentivize the software company to build its product around feedback. 

In short, usable problem-solving software isn’t necessarily the focus of a software company. 

Sometimes, metrics are solely sales objectives, which they meet consistently. That means there's no data-backed useability, and they don't have to worry about the user experience.

Ultimately, this puts the company in a precarious position. A competitor could easily demonstrate better usability and function, swiping their customers.

Types of participatory design

Each company can create a unique participatory design method to suit their needs. 

However, the majority takes advantage of one of the three common design types:

User-centered design

User-centered design is an iterative methodology that focuses on the user's needs at each step of the design process.

Users can be partially involved in the design by providing their opinions, views, and commentary after each iteration.

Participating users can make important choices about the design, including the features of the product as well as how the features work. 

Designers and developers begin collecting user feedback at the earliest stages of the process. They analyze the commentary and implement it as needed.

Co-design

Co-design gives all participants similar rights in the design process. 

Users work together with a team of designers to create a product that suits their needs. The team supports and implements the user's ideas.

While users, partners, and other stakeholders can participate in the design and basically "own the product," the final decision-making process belongs to the designer. 

When designers rely on users' opinions and suggestions, they should design according to them.

In co-design, the user starts working during the early stages of the project and provides lighter feedback until the end of the development phase.

User-created design

User-created or user-generated design involves four distinct stages of the design process:

  1. Gather feedback to understand the context of using the product 

  2. Specify user requirements to your design and development teams on that feedback

  3. Design against these requirements

  4. Evaluate the final design against the requirements

This is a way to see exactly what the user wants from the product. 

Once a design is available, professional designers can make changes according to the project specifications.

How to implement participatory design

If you're planning to involve users and stakeholders in the design process, you need to choose the type of design and proceed with several important steps:

Recruit participants

The right choice of participants defines the quality of collaboration. 

If you're designing a product or a service, you may need to attract users from different audience segments. Be sure they are actual users of your products or have a problem the product intends to solve.

This makes setting success metrics clear and straightforward. 

Define goals

Once participants are together, set design goals. 

Users and stakeholders can share their ideas, pain points, and needs during this stage. The entire team should be on the same page about the project's goals.

Project participants can easily share their ideas when they align on goals, problems, and opportunities. 

A clear understanding of the project's scope prevents low-quality suggestions and saves time.

Set up a structure

The structure of your design process is key to ensuring a smooth collaboration. 

Users who don't have design experience can have a hard time telling viable ideas from low-quality contributions. 

Creating a clear framework for the project prevents unnecessary discussions and saves time.

Deadlines and milestones are part of the structure. Team members should understand how iterations work and the goals of each stage.

You can create a journey map for the project to help everyone see what they need to do to accomplish the objectives.

Leverage divergence and convergence

Divergence and convergence can happen at any stage of the design process. 

Divergence is an integral part of the community design process that includes brainstorming. 

The team creates as many ideas as possible based on the set goals. Each member presents their ideas while the rest of the team provides feedback. They explain what they like about the solution and provide ways to improve it.

Convergence begins with the team reviewing all solutions, ideas, and feedback. They use this information to create the most viable design.

One of the goals is to minimize the time it takes to go from divergence to convergence. Clear ground rules make this possible.

Follow up with participants

After each session, follow up with participants. Show them the solution you built rather than explaining how you incorporated their feedback. Ask for their feedback and what they expect from it in the future. 

Participatory design is a continuous process that lasts throughout the project. Engage participants frequently to achieve top results.

How to conduct a participatory design session

Each participatory design session can have a significant effect on the entire project. Once you invite participants and outline session goals, you can take advantage of these best practices:

Ensure time management

A participatory session can easily last hours or days without yielding the desired results. Time management is essential to getting work done within a reasonable frame. 

You can:

  • Give each speaker a limited amount of time to express their thoughts

  • Use a timer application to make sure everyone sticks to the timetable

Share the volume of work with all participants before the session begins so they understand how much they need to do within a short period.

Assign facilitators

A facilitator is in charge of the session's structure. 

Instead of participating in the brainstorming action, they:

  • Create an engaging atmosphere

  • Monitor the time

  • Redirect the conversation’s theme when needed

  • Encourage ideas

  • Observe the participants and read their non-verbal language

Facilitators make it easier to conduct a session and finish it on time. They ensure everyone gets an opportunity to share their thoughts effectively while keeping the group on track. 

If the group is large, and some people avoid speaking, they can ask silent participants direct questions.

Record the session

Throughout the session, designers and facilitators need to take notes. 

You can also ask the participants to write down their thoughts for later discussion: Post-its are a common tool. Consider recording the entire session so you can return to it for more ideas.

You can use the video recording to fill in some discussion blanks by observing how participants behaved. This can provide extra insight into what they find especially useful for the project.  

Tools for participatory design

You can choose suitable tools for participatory design sessions depending on your project. 

The tools you implement can vary depending on the goals and types of participants. If you have everyone in the same room, you can conduct a session without additional instruments. 

For remote participatory design, you can use:

These tools can help you collect information from many online participants. With the right approach to collaboration, their contribution can be just as valuable. 

Importantly, smaller groups representing all project teams may provide the best results.

Implementing participatory design in your project  

Participatory design effectively creates a user-oriented product by involving all interested parties in the process. While it comes with certain challenges, this type of design can achieve high satisfaction rates among users and design teams.

Co-design takes user-centricity to the next level. With the right tools and techniques, it's possible to create a product that addresses all relevant paint points. From there, you can gain a significant competitive edge.

FAQs

Where is participatory design used?

Participatory design applies to many industries, including software development, manufacturing, healthcare, and education.

What is participatory design in education?

Participatory design in education involves students and teachers designing classroom technologies to streamline the learning process.

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