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«Abstract. The paper explores what exactly it is that users participate in when being involved in participatory design (PD), relating this discussion to ...»

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Unpacking the notion of participation in

Participatory Design

Tone Bratteteig and Ina Wagner

University of Oslo, Department of Informatics

tone@ifi.uio.no, ina.wagner@tuwien.ac.at

Abstract. The paper explores what exactly it is that users participate in when being

involved in participatory design (PD), relating this discussion to the CSCW perspective on

collaborative design work. We argue that a focus on decision-making in design is

necessary for understanding participation in design. Referring to Schön we see design as involving creating choices, selecting among them, concretizing choices and evaluating the choices. We discuss how these kinds of activities have played out in four PD projects that we have participated in. Furthermore, we show that the decisions are interlinked, and discuss the notion of decision linkages. We emphasize the design result as the most important part of PD. Finally, participation is discussed as the sharing of power, asking what the perspective of power and decision-making adds to the understanding of design practices.

Keywords. Collaborative design, Participatory Design, power, decision-making, choices 1 Introduction Participatory Design (PD) is an approach to the design of IT where the designers invite future users to participate in all phases of the design process. The motivations for engaging in PD vary from the rather pragmatic view that having users participate makes it easier to implement the design result, to a political position that users have the right to influence their future use situation. The degree of participation varies accordingly. Although the literature on participation abounds (e.g. Clement and Van den Besselaar 1993; Kensing and Blomberg 1998;

Kensing and Greenbaum 2012), the PD community lacks ways of talking about these differences and how they affect the PD process, as well as its outcomes.

This has also to do with the fact that much of the PD literature focuses on methods and techniques, demonstrating different ways of practicing participation in design. The focus is on the process and its characteristics, not necessarily on the details of the design practice: on the technical work involved in designing an IT artifact. Hence, it often remains unclear what it is that users participate in, what and how they contribute to the design result, and how they can see that they have contributed. This is the topic of this paper. It presents a conceptual approach to discussing the practice of participation in PD projects, focusing on power and decision-making.

This interest in understanding power and decision-making in design reaches back to the early days of PD, to the Florence project and its experiments on users’ participation in the design of IT artifacts (e.g. Bratteteig 2004). In those days (the 1980ies) politics and conflicting interests were at the core of PD, emphasizing the different worldviews of employers and employees in particular. An important point was to counteract the power/knowledge of designers and their highly specialized technical language. PD was about enabling discussions about future technical solutions between designers and users by having them communicate through mock-ups and prototypes instead of a specific formal language. Several decades later collaboration in an urban planning workshop (the IPCity project) stimulated us to revive our common interest in understanding issues of power and decision-making in PD. This resulted in a first joint paper (Bratteteig and Wagner 2012). The book that followed this small paper (Bratteteig and Wagner 2014) is based on an in-depth analysis of empirical material from two PD projects we had participated in. It looks at the dynamics of decision-making in these projects, asking: what does it mean to participate; what is it that you participate in in PD?

The book also provides an extensive discussion of the key concepts: power, decision-making, and participation.

This paper takes a step further in that it develops a framework for systematically analyzing participation in design, based on a distinction of arenas for participation in a design project. To demonstrate the usefulness of our approach our discussion includes a range of PD projects. Getting a grip on the details of participation in design has made us aware of the need to build on rather detailed knowledge of all the different design activities that have been carried out in a project. Hence, we also for this paper selected projects that we had participated in; four projects that represent small and large PD projects, short and long-term projects, industry and research contexts, with different types of users as participants: nurses, architects, and children.

Although the participation of users has become important in areas like health care, environmental planning, community development and urban planning, this paper focuses on the ‘classic’ version of PD that explicitly aims at designing IT artifacts. In this type of PD project the decision to look for a technology solution has often already been taken. The main issue is to, in a participatory way, create a design solution with a participatory result: one that increases the autonomy and space for action for its future users (Bratteteig and Wagner 2014). Key to this view of PD is the ethical stance that participating users should be involved in all aspects of a design process (e.g. Ehn 1988, Greenbaum 1993). In addition to the ethical and political view, the prevalence of involving users in design also stems from the more pragmatic view that ‘it is not only about social democracy but also about the systems that stand more chance of a success when the users are able to have a stake in their development’ (Martin et al. 2009: p.134). Engaging in the practice of participatory IT development not only results in ‘new understandings about how designs could be arrived at and introduced into the workplace, but also led to a broad base of new knowledge being built upon among workers and managers’ (Brereton & Buur 2008: p.103) that can be built into the design result (Bjerknes & Bratteteig 1995).

This paper seeks conceptual clarity about decision-making in design as a highly complex and often subtle process, in which ‘moves’ of opening and closing choices in the process of ‘making’ are driven or modified by decisions that users participate in as co-producers of design ideas and as ‘evaluators’.

We build our understanding of design on the notion of ‘design moves’ (Schön 1983; Schön and Wiggins 1992). Schön understood design as processes of ‘seeing-moving-seeing’: seeing and evaluating a situation or a thing, making a move to change the situation, and evaluating the result. Our analysis of design decisions is also inspired by the writings of Alfred Schütz (1962, 1951) on human action, imagination, reflection, and choice. Creating choices is fundamental to PD where all participants are invited to contribute to those choices. Our emphasis on choices and design decisions suggests decision-making as a framework for analysis. Originating in the literature on management and organization, it begs a series of conceptual and methodological questions. Decision-making in design is a highly complex and often subtle process, in which the moves of opening and closing choices in the process of making are driven or modified by decisions that users participate in as co-producers of design ideas and as evaluators.

Our main aim in this paper is to explore the question of what it is that users participate in. We discuss the different types of activities involved in making design moves, making use of fieldwork material from the four PD projects. We suggest moving away from idealizing notions of participation, showing that there may be different degrees of participation in a PD project. A key question is whether better participatory processes promise better participatory results. We think that there is no straightforward answer to this question. One of the insights we seek to demonstrate is that users do not have to participate in all aspects of a design project for it to have a participatory result. However, a participatory design result is not possible without users having contributed to creating choices.

Analyzing how choices are opened and closed and who participates in decision-making as an element of PD practice leads to a more precise understanding of the practical limitations of participation in design, some of which point to power issues. We consider the notion of ‘power to’ (Pitkin 1973) a useful concept for PD. ‘Power to’ means agency: the capacity to shape action, which partly depends on access to organizational resources, partly on ‘power/ knowledge’ in the Foucault sense (e.g. Foucault 1982). Hence, the second part of

our analysis looks into what shapes the possibilities for participation, looking at:

the institutional framing of the projects; the sources of power and influence different project participants were able to mobilize; the linkages between the decisions that influenced the dynamics of decision-making in the projects. The decision-making framework we will introduce is intended as a tool for ‘reflectionon-action’ after a project has been completed; but also as a to reflect on power and decision making when taking moves as designers in the design process.

As members of both research communities, PD and CSCW, we also seek to frame the question of participation and decision-making in design in a CSCW context. PD is a special kind of cooperative design process, with a focus on enabling different stakeholders with different perspectives and competencies to cooperate. The focus of CSCW is on understanding collaborative work practices and the details of the working together more generally, including design practices.

In this sense CSCW and PD are addressing the same phenomenon, assuming somewhat different perspectives.

After having introduced the ‘decision-making framework’, which is the conceptual core of the paper, the analysis and reflection part is carried out in a

series of steps:

• Section 4 ‘Participation in what’ introduces the four PD projects and describes the decision-making process in each of them, clarifying user participation in creating choices, selecting a choice, concretizing, and seeing/evaluating it.

• Section 5 ‘The sharing of power in PD’ takes the analysis a step further.

It examines the constellations that framed the possibilities to participate: the institutional context in which the projects were embedded; the power and influence exercised by the different participating stakeholders; the ‘decision-linkages’ – how participants’ choices influenced each other.

• Section 6 discusses if and how the depth of participation in design can possibly be assessed.

The paper concludes with reflections on the conceptual framework we have developed for understanding and designing the participatory part of PD, also reconsidering what the perspective of power and decision-making adds to the understanding of design practice.

2 Design and PD as collaborative work Design deals with ‘wicked problems’: they are ill defined and ill structured, with the consequence that ‘Problem understanding and problem resolution are concomitant to each other. … [The] process of solving the problem is identical with the process of understanding its nature’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973, p. 162). A result of this ‘wickedness’ is that most design processes are open-ended, often exploratory, and highly complex. A big challenge in design is therefore to expand the design space, creating a multiplicity of design options, and not closing it too early by focusing on a particular solution (Tellioglu et al. 1998; Bratteteig & Stolterman 1997). As design problems are ‘wicked’ and ‘ill-defined’, an important part of the practice of design is to support the possibility to make choices that can be unmade if the trying out of a promising ‘design move’ did not have the wanted effect (Wagner 2004).

As the product of design work does not yet exist, creating representations of possible design results plays a major role (see e.g., Buxton 2007). Studies of design practices in an architectural office looked into the details of creating design representations (Binder et al. 2011). One of the main insights from these studies is that much of the work of designing consists of producing design representations in different modalities, scales, and materials, in a continuous transforming process of ongoing refinement and increased specificity. The more complex a design task, the more difficult it may be to represent a design idea and this often results in a plethora of sketches, scale models, material samples (to illustrate properties), or prototypes. These representational processes can be seen as processes of ‘seeingmoving-seeing’ where the different representations partly depend on each other.

Within CSCW design practice in areas as different as software development, product design, and architectural design has been studied. A special issue of the CSCW journal in 1996 (Schmidt and Sharrock 1996) as well as a number of edited volumes such as Dittrich et al. (2002) and Voss et al. (2008) indicate an interest in design work. Researchers have looked into the various requisite coordinative practices that design work involves. Some research projects offer detailed accounts of parts of the design process, like Bowers and Pycock (1994) who documented some of the details in the design of a computer interface, analyzing dialogues between a programmer and a user about how to get the details right. A classic study of software developers at work was carried out by Button and Sharrock (1994), who were concerned with the organization of engineering work as project work. They showed that part of the knowledge of software engineers ‘is about how to co-ordinate distributed work’ (p. 385). Other research projects studied special practices, such as: the adoption of a configuration management tool by software developers (Grinter 1996); testing (Rooksby et al.

2009); coordination mechanisms (Carstensen and Sørensen 1996); or coordination of sub-teams that work on different parts of the same projects (Johannessen and Ellingsen 2009; Herbsleb et al 2000). Distributed design work would not be possible without ‘coordinative artifacts’ (Schmidt and Wagner 2004) that support, standardize, synchronize, and connect local practices so as to take care of logical, functional, spatial, social, and other interdependencies in complex design projects.

PD research also addresses design as collaborative work but from a different perspective. Kyng (1991) portrays PD as collaborative design while pointing out the difference to a CSCW approach: ‘Cooperation is an important aspect of work that should be integrated into most computer support efforts. In order to develop successful computer support, however, other aspects such as power, conflict and control must also be considered’ (1991, p. 65). Kensing and Blomberg (1998) see the difference between CSCW and PD in the fact that ‘PD has made no attempt to demarcate a category of work called cooperative, but instead has focused on developing cooperative strategies for system design’ (1998, p. 180). They add that for PD ‘distinguishing between systems that support cooperative as opposed to other types of work holds little value’ (ibid).

As PD’s main interest is understanding how to practice participation or what Kensing and Blomberg (1998) call ‘cooperative strategies for system design’, it focuses mostly on those aspects of design work that involve collaboration with users, emphasizing how to collaborate across professions and disciplines in terms of methods and techniques. There is a strong presence of principles: to share power with users and to respect ‘people’s expertise and their rights to represent their own activities to others, rather than having others do this for or to them’ (Robertson and Wagner 2012, p. 65). Moreover, PD looks at design practice from a normative point of view, which is based on ideas of autonomy, democratic selfrealization, and empowerment. Often, the detailed technical part of the work, when design ideas are concretized in a prototype, is blended out from a closer analysis.

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