Reading Commentary: Participatory Design

Participatory Design (PD) has fascinated me for a few months now, ever since I ran across it for the first time doing research for a paper wrote in the fall.  One of the main things that intrigue me is how it developed as an outcropping of cultural influences (or what the author of the chapter refers to as “political context”). 

The paper that I read that introduced me to the concept was called, “Four Paradigms for Systems Development. (Hirshheim & Klein, 1989)  The authors of this paper examine what they see as four “ways of thinking” when it comes to the structure of a developmental project (first discussed by Burrell and Morgan in 1979) and how each seems to be an adaptation to the culture in which it is used.  PD, as our chapter’s author points out, has as its origins, the Scandinavian culture and its emphasis on the worker and de-emphasis on a rigid structural hierarchy which they see as being influenced by both “social relativism” which views application development as a fluid and every changing environment, and “radical structuralism” which sounds like it could have come directly of the pen of Karl Marx.

One contrasts this with the more traditional paradigm that we are more familiar with in North America, that of top-down “functionalism” where management is responsible for providing system objectives and “trickling” them down to the analysts and eventually users.  This is seen even when the development process is participatory. The authors use as an example, the differences in PD and Joint Application Development which is more prominent in North America than in Europe.

As a collar to my interest in presentation theory, I am interested in the concept of universal design.  I would like to discover a connection between the two so I can better understand if their can exist a “common language” of design that only applies to website design and interfaces, but also to presentations as well.

Aside from what perhaps is obvious (PD is both expensive and time and labor intensive), the potential weakness in participatory design lies in the desire to participate.  The chapter’s author describes the “third/hybrid space as analogous to colonization where the local (colonized) people as well as the outsider (colonizers) are both dealing in a space that is their own, but through the “new” space “in the middle” open avenues that were previously not seen or available before.  This carries with it, however, a presupposition that this condition is not desirable for either party or at least not for the colonized.  This is because it also presupposes that all humans have the goal of self-actualization.  While this may or may not be a good goal to strive for, the fact is that many people are stuck in the lower levels of the Maslowian pyramid and are content to stay there.  Where this desire is based on personality, some relative merit, or ignorance, the end result is that some people prefer to be led and may be resistant to any attempt to involve them in any kind of decision making process.  For PD to work, the worker variable of the equation must feel that they have a stake in the process.

This being said, if we substitute “management” with “interface designer” and “worker” with “end user”, we perhaps run a better likelihood that the desire of all parties to participate is there.  But even here we can run into potential snags.  I do consider myself someone who has self-actualization as a life goal.  Yet when asked to “participate” in the design process, even if I care and have a stake in the outcome, I often decline.  Take the recent preview of MSO 2013.  Granted this was not an example of PD (MSO designed the software already, I was taking it for an extended ride around the block a few times), but the psychology of why PD might have a weakness is still there.  There were ample times for me to click on a “smiley face” or a “frowny face” when I liked or disliked something, but I never did.  Either I did not have or did not wish to devote the time to commenting…I had my next real task in mind and I did not want to break flow with this distraction.  It is not just those who want to be led that can hinder PD, it is anyone like me who is (or at least perceives themselves to be) too busy.  And MSO is important to me.  I use PowerPoint as my main slideware tool.  I teach the MSO apps in lower lever University courses.  Yet I could not be moved to comment on an smiley face.

In terms of methods, the one that I think I would be most keen to investigate further would the stories.  The use of stories to trigger a conversation, understand, or to facilitate the presentation of design concepts bares a very close analogy to the presentation principle of story.  When one is presenting, he/she is doing so because there is a product, service, or idea or point of view, that the presenter feels is important and that she/he wishes to have the audience understand and feel the importance as well.  This cannot be achieved thru a ridged outline structure of facts.  What is presented must appeal to the episodic memory of the audience were recognition occurs.  It appears that a similar principle is being applied through the use of stories in PD.  In presentations, when the topic is effectively told as a “story”, a connection, a common ground, a “third space” is found with the audience and the presenter.  If the story is part of a conversation, not as a mono-directional speech, this third space that is created can lead to the types of innovative ideas that the chapter seems to be talking about with PD. 

Also end user-photography parallels the use of the “picture superiority effect” in presentations.  There is an alternative presentation format called “Pecha Kucha” where a presentation is given with exactly 20 slideware slides each that must automatically advance after 20 seconds.  This format trains the presenter to be well rehearsed and to the point, but more importantly in this context, tends to force the user to represent their ideas graphically (real or methaphorically) since 20 seconds is usually not enough time to address a slide written in “death by PowerPoint” bullet lists.  I wonder of a PK-like model could be used to facilitate the photography method?

Finally, just briefly it was interesting to read about how “low-tech prototyping” can create a third space.  While our experiences in project 1 were limited, I could definitely see the seeds of what was described in this section taking place.  One can only wonder if, we can gone a little more “full-board” with more participants, or more importantly, which less ignorance and naiveté on the part of the “experimenter” (part of which is to stop thinking as the “experimenter”), if this “space” might have been broached.


Works Cited

Hirshheim, R., & Klein, H. K. (1989, October). Four paradigms of information systems development. Communications of the ACM, 32(10), 1199-1216.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s