How participatory design transformed the designer
into a developer of frameworks.
The design field is changing. The internet and technologies make it impossible for design to remain exclusive, users get access to design processes and different disciplines become increasingly intertwined. These changes can be seen as a possibility to take a closer look at the structures and approaches within the design field.
An issue that every designer has to deal with nowadays is that the boundaries between designers and users become blurred.
On the one hand, you have the evolving DIY culture. People with the same interests come together to share their skills and ideas. All the tools and knowledge that they need can be found online or in open workstations.
On the other hand, you have the designers and businesses that are looking for products with value that meet the needs of their users.
By giving users access to a design process and seeing them as a source of value, these two issues are used for a different design approach: participatory design.
This participatory approach has the potential to become an important design movement. But before we take a look at the future of participatory design, we have to study the history, methods and contemporary practitioners of this design movement. This will lead to the main question about what the division of roles is of the professional designer and the user within a participatory design process. This question will not only be answered by theoretical research but also by a practical research.
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Marylin Strathern, a British anthropologist who researched the natives of Papa New Guinea, discovered a tradition of this population that involves an interesting form of participation. People are told half of a story and the other half they have to find out by themselves. That is, they can invent it themselves or ask someone else.
However, implementing participatory approaches into design processes is fairly new. In Scandinavia, The Norwegian Iron and Metal Workers Union, led by Kristen Nygaard, invited workers to influence the design and use of computer applications at the workplace via developed strategies and techniques. This began in the 1970s and they focused on the active co-operation between researchers and workers.
This way of improving by engaging individuals in the design process is in line with the theory of Shoshana Zuboff and Jim Maxmin about 'distributed capitalism'. This paradigm serves the needs of individuals and treats them as a source of value. Zuboff writes on her website: 'The purpose of commerce becomes enabling individuals to live their lives as they choose, realizing the value propositions that arise from their unique perspectives in "individual space"' (Zuboff, "The Support Economy," para. 5).
According to Peter Troxler, in his essay The Need for Open Design, this focus on the value of the engagement of the individualist is an important element of the third Industrial Revolution. He claims that the first Industrial Revolution was about creating a control paradigm, by developing information and communication technologies to control energy and flows of materials within the industry. The second Industrial Revolution gave birth to a new type of capitalism, called managerial capitalism. It challenged the traditional regime of personal capitalism and was dominated by big firms. In the third Industrial Revolution, it is the costumer who determines what a business is and what valuable is. This focus on the needs and input of the users logically causes users to become part of the design processes.
Participatory design is about involving users in the design process, directed by the designer. The user becomes more than only the 'receiver' of a finished product. That is, he or she becomes an essential key in a process that will lead to a product that appeals to the needs of an individual. The designer becomes a developer of frameworks rather than an author of finished products.
In order to develop a framework that triggers its users to participate, a couple of methods have to be applied. These methods are characteristic for a participatory approach.
According to Dianna Herst in the book Open Design Now, an important applied property of this approach is the usability of the framework. This method makes sure the user is getting access to the design process and is not hindered by difficulties or ambiguities.
Besides usability, a design process also has to appeal to the users' emotions. The user has to be personally drawn to the design process, in order to really engage in the process. This can be done, for example, by letting the user feel a certain responsibility for the actual outcome. In this case, it is important to use the appropriate user. Someone that has a feeling with the subject of the design, or who will become an end-user of the end product.
A problem that often occurs in the user-centered design process, and that makes it difficult for users to engage in the design process, is that users have difficulties with understanding the implications of the early ideas and concepts proposed by designers.
The designer himself can solve this problem. He can give examples to give the user a push in the right direction. This method was used by Mickael Boulay, a designer who works on bringing health and care products closer to people. In his project 'Transitions', he developed a set of cutlery that trains the motor skills of a handicapped hand. One by one, the models that Boulay and a physiotherapist created, where tested by a disabled child called Willem. While Boulay and his team watched Willem eat his meal with the models, they brainstormed about new, better models. Step by step, the set of cutlery improved while Boulay stayed focused on how Willem reacted on the example models.
'REPAR Project' of Océ includes another solution to the question of how to make the design process understandable for the user so they can fully engage. This global leader in the printing industry gathered qualitative insights by using virtual reality.
The staff of an existing print shop was asked to load paper into an Océ printer, with multiple design arrangements proposed, in a virtual print shop.
This virtual print shop imitated a real life print shop setting, with realistic mess, such as clients, space, et cetera. By using such a realistic setting as framework, users have less difficulty to understand the ideas and concepts.
Another problem that can occur when users get involved in a design process, is that the participants get confused about the roles of the designer and the users.
Can the user be seen as co-designer? Or more as a hobbyist who helps the professional designer? This also raises the question what the difference between a professional designer and a hobbyist actually is.
In theory it's about the money. A professional designer designs as a living; a hobbyist designs just for fun. In our times, however, a lot of working people have plenty of spare time. We live in a rich society, and we can spend much money on a hobby. Plus, computer technologies have brought design tools into the hands of many hobbyists. This means that the line between professionals and hobbyists has become very thin. This is a logical consequence when there is enough time, money, knowledge and tools available.
This doesn't have to be a bad shift for the design world; designers just have to be aware that their role can be changing.
The project 'Seeker[HS²]' of designer, biologist and space researcher Angelo Vermeulen seems to provide an answer to this change. In his project, the community is put first. People from this community are invited to co-create, edit and hack a spaceship, without any blue prints made by the designer. Vermeulen expected from the community, a variety of local artists and engineers invited by Vermeulen, to design the spaceship together.
Even though they build the spaceship all together, it is very clear what the role of Vermeulen is, and what the role of the community is. Vermeulen is the one that issues the invitation by sharing his idea to build a spaceship and selecting the right people for the community. In the end, he is the one that is bringing together art and science, but also people from different ages and cultures.
But the community is an unmissable element in his project.
In this case, the designer needs the community, and the community needs the designer.
Traditionally, users were unaware of the design process of a design and the designer tried to think of the best use of the product for the user. In participatory design, the user is directly telling the designer what use is the best for him. The framework designed by the designer has to encourage the user, whether the user is a hobbyist who has all the knowledge and skills needed, a disabled child who tests example models, staff from a print shop or a community consisting of artists and engineers who are selected by the designer.
The user and the designer are together facing the difficulties of a design process, which makes them both responsible for the outcome.
You could say that participatory design is much more focused on the equal division of roles. And when properly done, it will enhance the function of the finished work. The participatory design process will only get better the more the user becomes part of the process and the more he gets seen as a source of value.
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(This research was done in written dialogue with a number of participants, using the excuis corpse method.)