Participatory design

Participatory design (originally co-operative design, now often co-design) is an approach to design attempting to actively involve all stakeholders (e.g. employees, partners, customers, citizens, end users) in the design process to help ensure the result meets their needs and is usable. Participatory design is an approach which is focused on processes and procedures of design and is not a design style. The term is used in a variety of fields e.g. software design, urban design, architecture, landscape architecture, product design, sustainability, graphic design, planning, and even medicine as a way of creating environments that are more responsive and appropriate to their inhabitants' and users' cultural, emotional, spiritual and practical needs. It is one approach to placemaking.

Recent research suggests that designers create more innovative concepts and ideas when working within a co-design environment with others than they do when creating ideas on their own.[1][2]

Participatory design has been used in many settings and at various scales. For some, this approach has a political dimension of user empowerment and democratization. For others, it is seen as a way of abrogating design responsibility and innovation by designers.

In several Scandinavian countries, during the 1960s and 1970s, participatory design was rooted in work with trade unions; its ancestry also includes action research and sociotechnical design.[3]


In participatory design, participants (putative, potential or future) are invited to cooperate with designers, researchers and developers during an innovation process. Potentially, they participate during several stages of an innovation process: they participate during the initial exploration and problem definition both to help define the problem and to focus ideas for solution, and during development, they help evaluate proposed solutions.[4] Maarten Pieters and Stefanie Jansen describe co-design as part of a complete co-creation process, which refers to the "transparent process of value creation in ongoing, productive collaboration with, and supported by all relevant parties, with end-users playing a central role" and covers all stages of a development process.[5]

Differing terms

In "Co-designing for Society", Deborah Szebeko and Lauren Tan list various precursors of co-design, starting with the Scandinavian participatory design movement and then state "Co-design differs from some of these areas as it includes all stakeholders of an issue not just the users, throughout the entire process from research to implementation."[6]

In contrast, Elizabeth Sanders and Pieter Stappers state that "the terminology used until the recent obsession with what is now called co-creation/co-design" was "participatory design".[7]


From the 1960s onwards there was a growing demand for greater consideration of community opinions in major decision-making. In Australia many people believed that they were not being planned 'for' but planned 'at'. (Nichols 2009). A lack of consultation made the planning system seem paternalistic and without proper consideration of how changes to the built environment affected its primary users. In Britain 'the idea that the public should participate was first raised in 1965' (Taylor, 1998, p. 86). However the level of participation is an important issue. At a minimum public workshops and hearings have now been included in almost every planning endeavour.[8] Yet this level of consultation can simply mean information about change without detailed participation. Involvement that 'recognises an active part in plan making' (Taylor, 1998, p. 86) has not always been straightforward to achieve. Participatory design has attempted to create a platform for active participation in the design process, for end users.

History in Scandinavia

Participatory design was actually born in Scandinavia and called cooperative design. However, when the methods were presented to the US community 'cooperation' was a word that didn't resonate with the strong separation between workers and managers - they weren't supposed to discuss ways of working face-to-face. Hence, 'participatory' was instead used as the initial Participatory Design sessions weren't a direct cooperation between workers and managers, sitting in the same room discussing how to improve their work environment and tools, but there were separate sessions for workers and managers. Each group was participating in the process, not directly cooperating. (in historical review of Cooperative Design, at a Scandinavian conference).

In Scandinavia, research projects on user participation in systems development date back to the 1970s.[9] The so-called "collective resource approach" developed strategies and techniques for workers to influence the design and use of computer applications at the workplace: The Norwegian Iron and Metal Workers Union (NJMF) project took a first move from traditional research to working with people, directly changing the role of the union clubs in the project.[10]

The Scandinavian projects developed an action research approach, emphasizing active co-operation between researchers and workers of the organization to help improve the latter's work situation. While researchers got their results, the people whom they worked with were equally entitled to get something out of the project. The approach built on people's own experiences, providing for them resources to be able to act in their current situation. The view of organizations as fundamentally harmonious—according to which conflicts in an organization are regarded as pseudo-conflicts or "problems" dissolved by good analysis and increased communication—was rejected in favor of a view of organizations recognizing fundamental "un-dissolvable" conflicts in organizations (Ehn & Sandberg, 1979).

In the Utopia project (Bødker et al., 1987, Ehn, 1988), the major achievements were the experience-based design methods, developed through the focus on hands-on experiences, emphasizing the need for technical and organizational alternatives (Bødker et al., 1987).

The parallel Florence project (Gro Bjerkness & Tone Bratteteig) started a long line of Scandinavian research projects in the health sector. In particular, it worked with nurses and developed approaches for nurses to get a voice in the development of work and IT in hospitals. The Florence project put gender on the agenda with its starting point in a highly gendered work environment.

The 1990s led to a number of projects including the AT project (Bødker et al., 1993) and the EureCoop/EuroCode projects (Grønbæk, Kyng & Mogensen, 1995).

In recent years, it has been a major challenge to participatory design to embrace the fact that much technology development no longer happens as design of isolated systems in well-defined communities of work (Beck, 2002). At the dawn of the 21st century, we use technology at work, at home, in school, and while on the move.


Co-design is often used by trained designers who recognize the difficulty in properly understanding the cultural, societal, or usage scenarios encountered by their user. C. K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy are usually given credit for bringing co-creation/co-design to the minds of those in the business community with the 2004 publication of their book, The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value with Customers. They propose:

"The meaning of value and the process of value creation are rapidly shifting from a product and firm-centric view to personalized consumer experiences. Informed, networked, empowered and active consumers are increasingly co-creating value with the firm."[11]

The phrase co-design is also used in reference to the simultaneous development of interrelated software and hardware systems. The term co-design has become popular in mobile phone development, where the two perspectives of hardware and software design are brought into a co-design process.[12]

Results directly related to integrating co-design into existing frameworks is "researchers and practitioners have seen that co-creation practiced at the early front end of the design development process can have an impact with positive, long-range consequences."[13]


Discourses in the PD literature have been sculpted by three main concerns: (1) the politics of design, (2) the nature of participation, and (3) methods, tools and techniques for carrying out design projects. (Finn Kensing1 & Jeanette Blomberg, 1998, p. 168)

Politics of design

The politics of design have been the concern for many design researchers and practitioners. Kensing and Blomberg illustrate the main concerns which related to the introduction of new frameworks such as system design which related to the introduction of computer-based systems and power dynamics that emerge within the workspace. The automation introduced by system design has created concerns within unions and workers as it threatened their involvement in production and their ownership over their work situation.

Nature of participation

Major international organizations such as Project for Public Spaces create opportunities for rigorous participation in the design and creation of place, believing that it is the essential ingredient for successful environments. Rather than simply consulting the public, PPS creates a platform for the community to participate and co-design new areas, which reflect their intimate knowledge. Providing insights, which independent design professionals such as architects or even local government planners may not have.

Using a method called Place Performance Evaluation or (Place Game), groups from the community are taken on the site of proposed development, where they use their knowledge to develop design strategies, which would benefit the community. "Whether the participants are schoolchildren or professionals, the exercise produces dramatic results because it relies on the expertise of people who use the place every day, or who are the potential users of the place."[14] This successfully engages with the ultimate idea of participatory design, where various stakeholders who will be the users of the end product, are involved in the design process as a collective.

Similar projects have had success in Melbourne, Australia particularly in relation to contested sites, where design solutions are often harder to establish. The Talbot Reserve in the suburb of St. Kilda faced numerous problems of use, such as becoming a regular spot for sex workers and drug users to congregate. A Design In, which incorporated a variety of key users in the community about what they wanted for the future of the reserve allowed traditionally marginalised voices to participate in the design process. Participants described it as 'a transforming experience as they saw the world through different eyes.' (Press, 2003, p. 62). This is perhaps the key attribute of participatory design, a process which, allows multiple voices to be heard and involved in the design, resulting in outcomes which suite a wider range of users. It builds empathy within the system and users where it is implemented, which makes solving larger problems more holistically. As planning affects everyone it is believed that 'those whose livelihoods, environments and lives are at stake should be involved in the decisions which affect them' (Sarkissian and Perglut, 1986, p. 3)

In the built environment

Participatory design has many applications in development and changes to the built environment. It has particular currency to planners and architects, in relation to placemaking and community regeneration projects. It potentially offers a far more democratic approach to the design process as it involves more than one stakeholder. By incorporating a variety of views there is greater opportunity for successful outcomes. Many universities and major institutions are beginning to recognise its importance. The UN, Global studio involved students from Columbia University, University of Sydney and Sapienza University of Rome to provide design solutions for Vancouver's downtown eastside, which suffered from drug- and alcohol-related problems. The process allowed cross-discipline participation from planners, architects and industrial designers, which focused on collaboration and the sharing of ideas and stories, as opposed to rigid and singular design outcomes. (Kuiper, 2007, p. 52)

Public Interest Design is a design movement, extending to architecture, with the main aim of structuring design around the needs of the community. At the core of its application is participatory design.[15] Through allowing individuals to have a say in the process of design of their own surrounding built environment, design can become proactive and tailored towards addressing wider social issues facing that community.[16] Public interest design is meant to reshape conventional modern architectural practice. Instead of having each construction project solely meet the needs of the individual, public interest design addresses wider social issues at their core. This shift in architectural practice is a structural and systemic one, allowing design to serve communities responsibly.[17] Solutions to social issues can be addressed in a long-term manner through such design, serving the public, and involving it directly in the process through participatory design. The built environment can become the very reason for social and community issues to arise if not executed properly and responsibly. Conventional architectural practice often does cause such problems since only the paying client has a say in the design process.[18] That is why many architects throughout the world are employing participatory design and practicing their profession more responsibly, encouraging a wider shift in architectural practice. Several architects have largely succeeded in disproving theories that deem public interest design and participatory design financially and organizationally not feasible. Their work is setting the stage for the expansion of this movement, providing valuable data on its effectiveness and the ways in which it can be carried out.

From community consultation to community design

Many local governments require community consultation in any major changes to the built environment. Community involvement in the planning process is almost a standard requirement in most strategic changes. Community involvement in local decision making creates a sense of empowerment. The City of Melbourne Swanston Street redevelopment project received over 5000 responses from the public allowing them to participate in the design process by commenting on seven different design options.[19] While the City of Yarra recently held a 'Stories in the Street'[20] consultation, to record peoples ideas about the future of Smith Street. It offered participants a variety of mediums to explore their opinions such as mapping, photo surveys and storytelling. Although local councils are taking positive steps towards participatory design as opposed to traditional top down approaches to planning, many communities are moving to take design into their own hands.

Portland, Oregon City Repair Project[21] is a form of participatory design, which involves the community co-designing problem areas together to make positive changes to their environment. It involves collaborative decision-making and design without traditional involvement from local government or professionals but instead runs on volunteers from the community. The process has created successful projects such as intersection repair,[22] which saw a misused intersection develop into a successful community square.

Peer-to-peer urbanism[23][24] is a form of decentralized, participatory design for urban environments and individual buildings. It borrows organizational ideas from the open-source software movement, so that knowledge about construction methods and urban design schemes is freely exchanged.

In software development

In the English-speaking world, the term has a particular currency in the world of software development, especially in circles connected to Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), who have put on a series of Participatory Design Conferences. It overlaps with the approach Extreme Programming takes to user involvement in design, but (possibly because of its European trade union origins) the Participatory Design tradition puts more emphasis on the involvement of a broad population of users rather than a small number of user representatives.

Participatory design can be seen as a move of end-users into the world of researchers and developers, whereas empathic design can be seen as a move of researchers and developers into the world of end-users. There is a very significant differentiation between user-design and user-centered design in that there is an emancipatory theoretical foundation, and a systems theory bedrock (Ivanov, 1972, 1995), on which user-design is founded. Indeed, user-centered design is a useful and important construct, but one that suggests that users are taken as centers in the design process, consulting with users heavily, but not allowing users to make the decisions, nor empowering users with the tools that the experts use. For example, Wikipedia content is user-designed. Users are given the necessary tools to make their own entries. Wikipedia's underlying wiki software is based on user-centered design: while users are allowed to propose changes or have input on the design, a smaller and more specialized group decide about features and system design.

Participatory work in software development has historically tended toward two distinct trajectories, one in Scandinavia and northern Europe, and the other in North America. The Scandinavian and northern European tradition has remained closer to its roots in the labor movement (e.g., Beck, 2002; Bjerknes, Ehn, and Kyng, 1987). The North American and Pacific rim tradition has tended to be both broader (e.g., including managers and executives as "stakeholders" in design) and more circumscribed (e.g., design of individual features as contrasted with the Scandinavian approach to the design of entire systems and design of the work that the system is supposed to support) (e.g., Beyer and Holtzblatt, 1998; Noro and Imada, 1991). However, some more recent work has tended to combine the two approaches (Bødker et al., 2004; Muller, 2007).

Processes, procedures and methods

Distributed participatory design

Distributed participatory design (DPD) is a design approach and philosophy that supports the direct participation of users and other stakeholders in system analysis and design work. Nowadays design teams most often are distributed, which stress a need for support and knowledge gathered from design of distributed systems. Distributed participatory design aims to facilitate understanding between different stakeholders in distributed design teams by giving each the opportunity to engage in hands-on activities.

Forms of distributed participatory design, or mass-participatory design, are now most frequently seen online. Web-based, mass-participatory design platforms are increasingly seen in both the consumer product and architectural design industries, facilitating direct public engagement at multiple stages of the design process.[25] Website designs and planning now incorporate social networking into their interfaces to increase distributed participation. This integration helps "funnel" or redirect traffic towards a website or group of websites, increasing website exposure, traffic, and the number of access points to a website. By providing users with multiple venues for interacting with and giving feedback to companies, content creators, and other users online have been able to strengthen networks and online communities.

The interconnectivity factor of online participatory design encourages users to engage in participation on websites outside those they regularly visit enabling the connection, strengthening, and creation of online communities and fandoms. On social networking websites, companies and creators create specialized pages or accounts for interacting with any users and consumers more directly and in more readily usable forms, as opposed to older methods of retrieving feedback. Through using various websites, users can participate in the design process with the medium they are most comfortable using, accommodating differences in technical background and navigating unfamiliar websites.

Feedback can typically be seen in the form of comment sections, rating systems, or reviews from which companies and content creators may determine possible future changes in design and organization. Not only does this make evaluation and feedback by users easier, but also serves as a way to more efficiently categorize and process the information in a more effective and organized manner. The use of distributed participatory design on the internet has eliminated many of the intermediate steps between a consumer's response and the company's reception thus decreasing transaction costs.

In terms of distributed participatory design, YouTube and their content creators, or YouTubers, incorporate many of these elements into their website designs and planning. Video pages contain a 'share' function that allows for individuals to circulate a link to a video through various social media sites to increase exposure and possibly redirect people to other sites content creators use for circulating media and for receiving reactions. Additionally, feedback can appear in the form of comments and ratings. Each video has separate comment sections for users to leave input and ideas in. YouTube also uses a rating system of thumbs up/thumbs down to provide the content creators with a statistic on how well a video was received. Many popular YouTubers use social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+ to announce video updates and any information on external projects. Through managing social networks, website, and YouTube channel, the content creators can manage the distributed participation effectively and maintain their fanbases as well as update them on any changes in the design or content creation process.

See also

Notes and references

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  4. Trischler, Jakob, Simon J. Pervan, Stephen J. Kelly and Don R. Scott (2018), "The value of codesign: The effect of customer involvement in service design teams", Journal of Service Research, 21(1): 75-100.
  5. Pieters, Maarten; Jansen, Stefanie (2017). The 7 Principles of Complete Co-creation. Amsterdam: BIS Publishers. p. 15. ISBN 978 90 6369 473 9.
  6. Szebeko, D., Tan, L. Co-designing for society. AMJ 2010, 3, 9, 580-590. doi:10.4066/AMJ.2010.378
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