Participatory approaches to design and including the end users view.

Experiment with St Andrews School


  • To explain the philosophy and main principles of co-design, collaborative design, co-creation and other methods that attempt to include the user in the creative stages of designing a product or service.
  • To define techniques, including applied ethnographic methods, for including the users perspective and their experiences in making design decisions


This section provides an introduction to recent principles and methods for understanding and including the users perspective during the creative design stage of projects.  Many of the associated techniques are based on social science methods, intended to study participant audiences or cultures in their natural context and environment.  They are adapted for design in order to reveal qualitative insights about current experience with existing products or situations.  In addition, they have also developed to try and capture the aspirations, future requirements or ‘dreams’ of potential users for new design interventions. An increased need for product differentiation commercially has pointed the way towards the need for new understandings of the consumer. New methods have also been prompted by an attempt to recognise affective, behavioural and emotional factors alongside the usual practical issues. These have also been described as techniques for “designing user experiences” though the terminology varies.

Definitions Much of the interest has been focussed on interacting with the user during the early stages of a project to gain their view and information about their lifestyle.  During the later generative stages, there have also been attempts to include the user in a “participatory” development process.

The emergence of the user as designer Not using, to office networks, why it was included commercially, mainstream use.  Potential for society. Designer guru: Historically, normal practice for the creative design industries was to rely quite heavily on personal intuition to arrive at new ideas, with research into relevant facts and the experience of the designer as the basis for decisions about new developments.  Data in the form of statistics and written reports from market research agencies about users may also have underpinned the work, but the ‘customer’ for a product was unlikely to be consulted at the creative stages of development. Up until the 1990’s, it was not recognized that a potential audience could have this ability to participate in development and be creative. Liz Sanders, [1] one of the early proponents of participatory design methods noted that common practice even in 2001 was to think:

“consumers cannot imagine or envision how their future could be different from the present.” “consumers cannot come up with ideas for new products or services to improve their lives.”

Traditional user centred: Traditionally, even user centred design focussed on the view of ‘experts’, including theories and macro perspectives about people.  This began with the integration of ideas from physical Ergonomics; synonymous with design practice, since the 50s. Cognitive Psychology has been integrated to understand perception and Communications theories added to work on the messages that a product sends out, for example.  These have all been introduced from the position of knowledge and can often represent a viewpoint that is external to the design problem. Contextual enquiry would even have been done from the designer’s perspective. More recent approaches have placed the user at the centre of investigations and considered their opinion as valuable as the experts.

Computing : Design methods with a focus on the user’s perspective originally gained importance in improving work place activities and conditions to improve efficiency. Applied Ethnography in particular, associated with sociology or anthropology, became a resource for design in the 1980’s when computer technologies moved out of research labs into mainstream offices, manufacturing floors and educational institutions. It was clear even in the 1980’s that questionnaires and typical surveys did not really help to gain a full perspective s.  Frequently what people say they do is not entirely the full picture of what hey actually do and it was necessary to actually observe activities at first hand. .  Designers recognised the need to understand the requirements of people on a day-to-day, shop floor basis and how they were to cooperate and network through different media. It became clear with LANS and early Internet implementations that methods would be required that focussed beyond single, isolated computer users. It was necessary to explore the communication practices of people who interacted with each other through mediating technologies not just face to face.

Recent contextual changes in the use of information technology have prompted an even greater need for such studies.  Computers have long since also been in the home. Information technology has come to be the basis for many products, from toys, to wearable jewellery.  In fact, we find that it has become prevalent in almost every situation we find ourselves in from playing games in the home to travelling on the underground it is difficult to define its boundaries. It is no longer sufficient to start with a definition of the kind of interface or artefact to be designed; the context and people involved will dictate the design direction and the nature of the emerging product itself. Ref: Look at Xerox Parc: Suchman1983, Blomberg 87 others Sachs 1995)Commercial product differentiation: The continued drive behind including the new participatory methods for design practitioners has been, predictably perhaps, fuelled by the requirement for profit and market share. In the commercial world, those responsible for products that the user sees, touches and experiences are increasingly required to validate their design efforts against an understanding of people and potential market.  It makes every sense to do so as a large investment in a new design may be wasted if it is not well received by its target audience. This is reflected in the inclusion of this ….compajies?

Increased product differentiation has led to the introduction of studies on Culture and thus Anthropology became a key subject.  In the past anthropologists might have been considered as those studying a tribe on a small distant island.  However it soon became apparent that our own society could just as easily be viewed as consisting of separate ‘tribes’ since our cultural practices could frequently be quite different and that assuming any level of understanding without study could be quite a mistake.  Reff….

Thus, for some time now, Social scientists and psychologists (or at least their methods) have been providing insights into human requirements as part of a design team, from large corporate institutions like Intel and Microsoft to small companies like PDD Ltd.  (Websites: ) (List of conferences)  Add some academic references

Designers have been seeking the answers to questions such as: how does lifestyle and behaviour affect attitudes and aspirations that can be reflected in design? how does life context affect appreciation ?  The only effective way to gain solutions was to “step inside” the world of the user and to attempt to study them from their own perspective.  This pointed to methods from Ethnographic disciplines, a scientific branch of Anthropology directed towards studying particular cultures, in situ, from the perspective of the society member.  (Tso,J 2000,

For some time now, Social scientists and psychologists (or at least their methods) have been providing insights into human requirements as part of a design team, from large corporate institutions like Intel and Microsoft to small companies like PDD Ltd.  (Websites: ) (List of conferences)  Add some academic references

Many design companies and consultants have evolved strategies that employ a high degree of user input, to design for large corporate manufacturers. including the DOBLIN GROUP, SONICRIM, SAPIENT, GVO, IDEO, TS DESIGN, and others, indicating this movement. This movement reflects a broader trend for including ‘user research’ in the marketing and strategy forming work of many significant blue chip companies globally.  At a seminar for industry titled “Consumer Insight” (Marketing Week conference, London, April2003) many leading companies presented tools for understanding the user.  There were 50 marketing departments represented including: Boots, Cadbury, Procter and Gamble, Virgin and others, besides many consultancy based marketing oriented companies that specialise in user studies or future behaviour predictions specifically.  These seminars are held regularly throughout the year and appear to focus on observational (and other ethnographic), participatory and psychological methods of recording and understanding the users perspective.Elab were one of the originators of such an approach, formed in 1993 to combine research and design (Wasson 2000).

A review of design discussions, during the early 21st century at academic conferences and accompanying literature suggested an evolution towards a more sophisticated understanding of users during the development of artefacts and services. Changes have occurred in society in general, brought about by new communication media, new technologies, and methods of production which present fresh challenges for the field of design practice.  The vanishing boundaries between hardware and software, and increased networking as a new concomitant element, are making the nature and function of a product fluid. As IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri (2001) notes, “ increasingly designers are concerned with the experience of much more complex artefacts in which hardware, software, environments and services converge.” Thus, often a product is not a “finished” entity, but an “evolving” artefact; it becomes outdated and irrelevant to begin with a predefined definition of “product”, the only remaining focus can be the desired experience.

There has also been a change in lifestyles ; today people have more options, making the old methods of market segmentation and demographic studies less reliable.  Paradigms within which we live and work’, have changed, not only are patterns of living becoming less predictable, but cross-cultural  . (Examples?) These developments are requiring designers to move the preoccupation with the ‘tangible’ physical object (form, structure & geometry) as the means of providing the ‘correct’ solution, to the ‘intangible’ aspects of users ‘experience’ of (feelings, culture and perception). (Gray 1995) By designing contexts for experience instead of simply products, the focus shifts from the result of interaction e.g. the music, towards the involvement during interaction e.g. putting on a record and listening to music. This means that the designer’s emphasis should not merely lie on creating a beautiful, pleasing artefact in appearance, but expand to creating a beautiful, engaging interaction (Hummels, 1999)

The consumers perspective Undoubtedly the cross-fertilisation of social science disciplines with design has initiated many useful tools and research methods have arisen, with necessary adaptations. Designers have frequently found ways to create a more visual approach to research and working with the user and are becoming relatively successful at empathising with and working from the user’s perspective. (Overbeeke & Hekkert 1999)  Sanders Method Koestler (1964), every creative act involves bisociation, a process in which previously unrelated ideas are brought together and combined. He contrasts bisociation with association. Association refers to previously established connections among ideas. Bisociation involves making entirely new connections. According to Koestler, bisociation only occurs when the person has been thoroughly involved in the problem or situation for a long time. Koestler also emphasizes the importance of dreams, in that dreaming involves bisociation at an unconscious level. We will use ideation to refer to the preverbal idea stage and expression to refer to the translation of those ideas into formal systems of communication.

Adding the emotional component:

If we are looking at factors affecting our enjoyment of a process then clearly practical issues of use and successful completion of activities will be important.  However, it is argued that this is not the full picture.  Designers have come to consider issues of life-context; needs and wants; behaviour and emotional reactions in an attempt to match  services more exactly to them.  Latterly, there has been discussion that ergonomics, cognitive psychology and approaches to “usability” have focussed too readily on the practical and have not gone far enough to understand the whole experience. It was proposed that the qualitative aspects of design should come to the fore  (Jordan 1998, Sanders, 1999).

Some user research approaches have emphasised the importance of understanding peoples “experiences”.  (Sanders, Dandavate 1999) These ideas generally focus on trying to observe, record and analyse the more qualitative aspects of existing user’s experiences (usually to generate future products, services, environments, and brands).  Sanders attributes this influence to movements in the social sciences that acknowledge the roles of emotions in human experience (Jensen 1999 is an example) It seems clear that experience based design and also approaches described as creating “empathic design” focus on including emotional responses.  Liz Sanders is the president of SonicRim, who explore innovative design research techniques.  Her background is in psychology and anthropology. Sanders (Design for Experiencing: New Tools 1999) holds the view that : The evolution of influence that the social sciences have had on the design process mirrors the changes seen over time within the social sciences.  For example usability research within HCI design borrowed its theory from the cognitive revolution of the 60/70s which changed the focus from behaviour based studies to information processing models.  Behaviourists believed that only observable behaviours could be studied scientifically and many ethnographic approaches within design are based here.  Her argument is that access to the experiencer’s world is only achieved through their expression of it through participatory design. These tools are a recent addition to help designers understand emotional needs.  Gaver in describing the products produced from the ‘Cultural Probes’ project. He states “It wasn’t that the designs themselves were emotional, or elicited strong emotions beyond curiosity. Instead, they served well to create a space in which emotions could occur, but not be directed”.


The new approaches, added to design practice are frequently referred to as “design for user experience”; “experience” being a catch all word for what is trying to be understood about the user.   These studies also now appear on the curriculum for many design departments of universities and colleges.  This, to date seems to be one of the most useful definitions for describing a holistic approach to designing and thus it will be important for this project to attempt to understand existing models of experience.


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