Participatory design: including people in the design process at UX Cambridge 2012

This blog post is long overdue. At UX Cambridge 2012, I was lucky enough to be joined by my friends Mel Findlater (@melfindlater) and David “Sheff” Barker (@mcshefferty) in running a workshop called “Design for Society”. The aim was to give participants an taste of running a participatory design session, and we included both UX designers (conference attendees) and “real people” – in this case, long-term wheelchair users and their carers. Thank you to everyone who took part!

Participatory design workshop participants

Designers and non-designers working together to understand design problems. With Lego.

For a long time, Mel and I have been talking about the intersection between UX design (where I work) and social enterprise (where she works), and we wanted facilitate a workshop that would allow people to explore both of those things. We also wanted to look at a complex topic, since that is what we both tend to work with – in my case, the design and delivery of scientific services, and in Mel’s case, the challenges faced by [often] marginalised members of our community. Sheff is another UX designer, with a background in e-learning and education, and experience of the kind of tools and techniques we wanted to include in the workshop.

Here’s the workshop description from UX Cambridge 2012:

“In this workshop, we invite you to help tackle real world problems with real design solutions. You will have the chance to do some participatory design, as we will invite “real-life” people along to participate, whom you can interview, test with and learn from. If you are familiar with the design jam format, then you will have an idea of how things will proceed. We will give a broad framework for the session and present you with a design challenge on the day. How you tackle it is up to you, but we will be available to offer advice, guidance, tips and help facilitate discussions where needed. This session is all about co-designing useful solutions alongside people who know the challenge best because they’ve lived it.”

Participatory design jam format

Ryan Haney, presenting design ideas

Experience designer Ryan Haney presents back ideas from his participatory design workshop team-mates

Participatory design is really a specific approach to user-centered design, where the users of a particular system are very deliberately involved in the design process. It’s an approach we wanted to explore and share with people at UX Cambridge. We were in no small part inspired by Jon Kolko’s book, Wicked Problems, and his discussion of Liz Sanders’ work on participatory design in particular. Other people are writing about this too – check out Andrii Glushko’s article on participatory design in healthcare, in UX Mag. Some great thoughts there.

The format we chose to follow for this workshop was close to that of a design jam, although massively compressed! This seemed like a good option as it gave us a proven structure to follow, and we felt that was especially important for the non-designers participating, since this was their first experience of a design workshop.

The design challenge we provided was:

How can we design better travel experiences with wheelchair users and their personal assistants?“.

Some tools, a framework, and creative freedom

Given the range of [design] experience in the room, we were conscious that while most of us UX designers are quite happy to, say, sketch ideas on flipcharts and create affinity diagrams of ideas on post-its… that probably wouldn’t be the case for all our participants. We wanted to do our best to include them, and to help the other designers present help them participate in the workshop – that is the point, after all!

So yes, we had pens, post-its and big pieces of paper, but we also had piles of Lego; we had visual prompts (like photos of kerbs, punctured tyres, steps, and holiday destinations). All of these things were used by designers and non-designers alike, helping to get discussions going and to model concepts.

Spontaneous role-playing

Perhaps one of the most exciting developments of the workshop, from my perspective, was when the group I was working with decided that sketches and Lego just weren’t enough, and instead decided to rearrange the furniture in the room to represent the inside of a public bus, and then proceeded to role-play the experience of getting into and out of a bus. We watched while one person manoeuvred his electric wheelchair in to the appropriate space and their personal assistant helped them, carrying bags and apologising for stepping on peoples’ toes. It was eye-opening, and in certainly helped to engender empathy.

Empowering non-designers & developing empathy

From the discussions that Mel and I had, we felt that for complex topics, where we are not subject matter experts, we often need to look beyond the usual user-centered design process. Sometimes, the concept -> research -> create -> test -> iterate cycle doesn’t work so well because there are so many unknowns. Besides, we’re often limited in terms of time and resources as to how much we can actually explore a topic.

Our experience has been that by bringing people into the design process and designing while learning from them at the same time can really help.

Facilitating participation can also serve to democratise and perhaps demystify the process somewhat; something that can be an important consideration in projects where you need to gain the buy-in of a range of stakeholders.

We often try to focus on an activity (e.g.  the design jam challenge) and learn how our “real people” talk and think about this activity. What are their experiences? What can we take from this? We are not asking participants to design the solutions; this is not design-by-committee or about being user-led .

Participatory design is about making people an active part of the  process and developing empathy on the part of all involved. It still requires a professional designer to produce workable solutions, though, based on what they have learned in participatory design. Even so, this approach gives us a basis for collaboration, perhaps drawing on co-operative design – the roots of participatory design outside Scandinavia – in that we are all face-to-face.

We think that the participatory design approach lends itself well to time-pressured, complex domains, because it can provide designers and non-designers with the tools and methods they need to develop their ideas and their degree of empathy in tandem.

Thank you to UX Cambridge for making it possible

We owe a very big debt of gratitude to UX Cambridge (to Mark Dalgarno and Jacqui Davidson in particular) for making this workshop possible, and helping us include the wheelchair-users and their carers. Without them, it wouldn’t have been participatory design!

Slides from the start of the workshop

We needed to frame the participatory design activity somehow, and we only had three hours for the workshop. We also had to consider that several of the participants had no idea at all about user experience design, and the language and techniques we use. Here’s how we kicked things off:


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