Kate Rutter recently spoke with Liz Sanders of MakeTools, a design research company that focuses on collaborative creativity about the participatory process and it’s impact on design. Liz has worked across a variety of mediums, including interactive/web, industrial design and architecture and will be leading two UX Week sessions on Participatory Design.
Kate Rutter [KR]: So, Liz…the burning question is…“what is participatory design?”
Liz Sanders [LS]: What I think it is, first and foremost, is a mindset. I think the mindset is critical; and the mindset is that all people are creative and have the ability to become a part of design.
What we’re doing in participatory design is involving the people who we’re serving through design as participants in the process. We’re involving them in as co-creators of the whole process. If you don’t believe people are creative, then you really can’t do this.
KR: How does that work in practice? What does participatory design look like?
LS: Sure, I’ll give you an example from a recent project. Right now, I’m working with NBBJ which is an architecture firm. We’re designing a hospital project, working with healthcare professionals, community, and designers in visioning and designing to support the experience of the new hospital.
What we’re doing now is putting the building in a much larger context and using participatory methods, tool kits, and materials to get people thinking not just of the building, but the potential future journeys that people in the community might take ten years in the future.
The idea is to get key stakeholders to tell stories about the future. We give them lots of visual tools and materials to help them make up stories and to communicate those stories to each other.
We give them a large collection of photographs, shapes, special kinds of Post-it notes, markers, scissors, and so forth. If they’re so inclined to create their story and then express it by acting (and occasionally they do) then we have props and costumes—even hats. You might find them taking on different personas and telling the story—not just with a big, big poster on the wall—but with dialogue and scenes and so forth.
KR: Sounds like this project is in the very early planning stages. Is this the best place for this kind of design method?
LS: I think that it can have a role at every part of the design process from pre-design all the way through. However, I find that most of my work is at the very, very early front end, before you even know what you’re designing. It’s at the front-end that I think this approach has the most potential for figuring out what needs to get done, how to do it, and why to do it.
So most of my practice is in the pre-design phase; and I think that’s probably the best place for it. It can be done throughout the whole process; but, frankly, later in the process, sometimes it’s more efficient and time-effective to use other methods.
KR: Why does the participatory design matter? How does it impact the resulting designs?
LS: From practicing this for many, many, many years, I’ve seen that if we work this way upfront, we can generate far more relevant ideas to then elaborate on and pursue throughout design development.
I think any good design team will come up with lots of ideas. But then there’s always the step of how do you figure out which are the good ideas. Which ideas really matter? If you’re doing really early participatory design before you know what you’re designing, and you use the results of that to inspire the designers to generate ideas, you generally end up with useful, relevant ideas.
If you’re looking out ten years ahead and give people the tools to imagine their ideal futures and then pass that knowledge onto designers, there’s the ability to not only generate useful, relevant ideas but generally they’re directed towards the future. In other words, not just near-term improvements or ideas come out. It could be fundamental ideas that really change the way people live.
KR: It sounds like these tools can help designers get inspired in the right direction. How does the participation aspect make this happen?
LS: You get more relevant ideas, for one. Architects claim this helps them narrow down their ideas. They have so many ideas. They generate hundreds of excellent ideas about how things could be done better. Working this way with the actual people helps them figure out what really is a good idea. What’s become clear is that these tools create a new way for designers and non-designers to communicate with each other.
Let me give you an example. Something that has been extremely successful in the hospital project is working with nurses on the design of the hospital rooms. We’re using a three-dimensional dollhouse scale toolkit, where they can show us what their needs are in the patient room, quickly, physically, three-dimensionally, with scale components.
Some of the components we use are very abstract, so that people can generate ideas for the future. Instead of just using plans or specs that are abstract and not well understood, we’re making things physical, visual, and manipulable.
The whole language is changing; and we’re working on many different kinds of toolkits that both architects and hospital people can use; and that they can both use it together. They literally see what each other is saying.
KR: That really is a different pattern of communication than has been available in the past. With more traditional methods, either designers are capturing information from field or user research, or assessing design success based on prototypes. This set of tools breaks that open into a very different dialog.
LS: It’s a different design language. It’s a whole different language.
In many cases, in participatory sessions, we’re not designing the solution per se. Instead people are expressing their need or a dream for a particular part of an experience. A lot of times, we can’t necessarily make a direct link between what was created in the participatory sessions and what was actually produced in the end.
When you’re using the participatory design at the front end, before you know what it is you’re going to make, you’re creating content to inspire the design process from a relevant point of view.
So we see, even when we use three-dimensional toolkits where people make things, they’re not actually creating a product as much as expressing their needs for experience.
KR: So seriously, can everyone design? You mentioned you think everyone’s creative, but can everyone design?
LS: I guess it really depends on your definition of design. I would say that everybody is creative. Everybody is capable of collaborative and being in a collaborative, creative setting.
I do think there are some special skills that designers have that are needed in the process, like integrating ideas and developing prototypes; also visualizing, and taking these ideas and inspirations and turning it into a form or a pattern or a story. I do think there’s some additional skills that designers have that ordinary people won’t necessarily have.
KR: With everyone coming to the party, what’s the role of the designer in participatory design?
LS: Those are certainly on my list of frequently asked questions. It’s like, if everybody’s creative, what about the designer?
That is a real fear; and I often hear concerns of “but won’t this change the design process?” My feeling at this point is, “Yeah, it’ll fundamentally destroy the traditional design process.” It’s really going to shake things up.
I believe there is going to be a whole domain of design expertise around being able to create these toolkits or scaffolds or platforms for other people to be creative on or with. So in the future, it’s the designers who will be designing the toolkits.
This enables non-designers to live their lives better, express themselves better, do whatever it is that they want to do. So it’s sort of moving from designing products to designing platforms for experience. To me, that’s a very exciting, challenging design problem.
And then somebody will still be designing products, per se; but, as we know, a lot of that’s going offshore or becoming automated.
KR: It sounds like the designers’ realm or ownership of the ideation, concepting, and the decision of what matters, will fundamentally change with these participation-based methods.
LS: Well, the box is now open. It’s been opened up to a much greater extent, but someone still has to figure out what to do with all the ideas and how to put it into a form. I think that the design process itself will be more about this front-end activity and less about the tail end of it. The tail end will still get done, but I don’t think that that’s where the growth of the field will be.
I think we know a lot about individual creativity; but I think that we don’t have any idea about what I call collective creativity.
What happens when you have 30 people envisioning the hospital of the future, and you give them the right kind of communication tools, not just to communicate their idea, but the tools that let them generate collectively these ideas?
I think that that’s a whole level that we’re just figuring out. We have no idea right now what that’s going turn into or how to teach it or enable it or facilitate it. When I say that design is going to be more about the front end, I mean that it’s going to be more about this collective creative process where all kinds of people are involved in figuring out what we need to do in the future.
KR: Thank you, Liz. I’m really looking forward to your hands-on participatory design sessions at UX Week. Thanks for talking with us today.