«Abstract. The paper explores what exactly it is that users participate in when being involved in participatory design (PD), relating this discussion to ...»
Given these commitments, many accounts of PD pay less attention to the details of collaboratively designing an IT artifact or system than to concerns about conflict, politics, and power. If the making of an IT artifact is addressed, the focus is on the contributions of the participating user. A classic example is the UTOPIA project, where graphical workers were involved in the design process through a rather concrete approach using mockups and simulations of computer based working environments (Ehn 1989). The mock-ups were more or less sophisticated, like paper boxes representing mouse and laser printers, or large paper drawings and (later on) slides showing alternative screen layouts […] one of the benefits from this approach is that the workers do not have to explicate their work processes, they can express their craft skills by demonstrating and doing their work. This approach was called ‘design-by-doing’. (Bjerknes and Bratteteig 1995, p. 77) More recent examples are ‘user mock-ups’ built by young people with diabetes (Glasemann and Kanstrup 2011) or by families addressing issues of electricity consumption in private households (Kanstrup et al. 2006). Participatory designers want to learn about users’ problem definitions and ideas for solutions through the things they make; as part of ‘mutual learning’ (Bratteteig et al. 2012), which is seen as central to PD.
CSCW research on the other hand pays little attention to issues of power. The literature on decision-support, which was a main topic in the early days of CSCW, focuses on groups and how to best organize the process of ‘proposing alternatives, evaluating alternatives, making choices (e.g., by authority, consensus or voting)’ (Malone and Crowston 1990); without, however, conceptualizing power. There are some exceptions though that seem to have been of limited influence on the field as a whole; such as for example Sauvagnac and Falzon (1996) who in their study of production and maintenance workers of a dairy, have described negotiations as power games and unpredictability and uncertainty as sources of power; or Clement and Wagner (1999) who have operationalized issues of interdependence and power in organizations spatially. Some of the debate within CSCW on power has followed Suchman’s paper ‘Do categories have politics?’ where she looks at the ‘normative imposition of categories by some actors’ (1995) as acts of power. Also of influence was Star and Strauss’ (1999) exploration of the relations between power and invisible work. However, there are few studies that would conceptualize details of a work practice in terms of ‘power’. This may be
due to the legacy of ethnomethodology. Lynch 1997 addresses this question:
The problem in a nutshell is that ethnomethodology is not clearly aligned with an ‘emancipatory’ politics or, for that matter, with any transparent political agenda. On the one hand, it has sometimes been argued that the approach is ‘conservative’ because ethnomethodologists rarely talk about power or coercion, and superficially understood, the approach seems to suggest that enterprising actors freely create the world(s) in which they act (p. 31).
What ethnomethodologists may look at, however, is the institutional context in which design work is embedded. Martin et al. (2009), for example, have provided a thorough analysis ‘of the everyday practicalities of achieving participation and managing user–designer relations’ (p. 133), taking the design of an electronic patient record as an example. They stress the ways contingencies are handled as affecting and in some cased limiting the possibilities for stakeholder participation.
The contingencies they identified were:
(1) differences in analysts and stakeholders and their relationships, (2) differences in complexity encountered in different areas (or modules) of development, (3) competition between participation and socio-technical concerns and other design concerns, and (4) organisational, interorganisational and regulatory (Government) pressures (p. 153).
As a consequence of multiple pressures user involvement may compete with other concerns (p. 153). Although we will look at the institutional context the four PD projects are embedded in, our focus on power and decision-making partially blends out the ‘everyday practicalities’ Martin et al. refer to. As we will demonstrate, such a level of analysis (and abstraction) poses some challenges. In the next section we seek to highlight what makes decision-making as a framework for studying design both problematic and attractive.
3 Power and decision-making in design Most theorizing about power and decision-making originates in organizational theory. Hence, an important step consists in rethinking these concepts in relation to design work in general and PD in particular, asking: how can decision-making processes in design be conceptualized; and how do different types of power influence decision-making? We start with decision-making, suggesting that talking about power in PD requires a rather detailed analysis of decision-making in a project.
3.1 The dynamics of choices and design moves The debate on decision-making was for a long time dominated by Herbert Simon's notion of bounded rationality and decision-making as a three phase ‘intelligencedesign-choice’ sequence (Simon 1960). James March, who had collaborated with Herbert Simon, many years later co-authored a paper on ‘organized anarchies’ as a form of organization that does not follow the rational model. This type of organization was seen as operating on the basis of ‘a variety of inconsistent and ill-defined preferences’, as often using simple trial-and-error procedures, and by ‘fluid participation’ in the organization’s choices. The so-called ‘garbage can’ model of choice, typical of such type of organization proposed to view a choice opportunity as a garbage can into which various kinds of problems and solutions are dumped by participants as they are generated. The mix of garbage in a single can depends on the mix of cans available, on the labels attached to the alternative cans, on what garbage is currently being produced, and on the speed with which garbage is collected and removed from the scene (Cohen et al. 1972, p. 2).
The ‘garbage can’ model seems to account for the situation in highly complex projects with lots of stakeholders with potentially diverging perspectives and a
certain level of ambiguity concerning:
The nature of the problem is itself in question; information (amount and reliability) is problematical; multiple, conflicting interpretations; different value orientations, political/emotional clashes; goals are unclear or multiple and conflicting; time, money or attention are lacking: contradictions and paradoxes appear; roles vague, responsibilities unclear (Weick 1985, p. 123) The ‘garbage can’ also seems to capture the fact that we may in hindsight talk about a decision having been taken while finding it difficult to reconstruct how exactly it came about. Hence, before talking about how rational and orderly or anarchic decision-making proceeds, we need to have clarity about what a decision is: how can we possibly recognize it when observing people at work? We think this is partially a question of granularity or level of analysis.
The philosopher Alfred Schütz has written about situations that involve choices. Schütz was interested in the ‘natural attitude’ that he describes as typical of daily life where we are ‘geared into the world’, which ‘is the scene and also the object of our actions and interactions’ (Schütz 1954, p. 534). It is a world given to us. Hence, in daily life much of our action is habituated, characterized by a ‘suspension of doubt’. However, Schütz also describes situations that involve choices between alternative ‘projects’ (Schütz 1962). He quotes John Dewey who, in writing about ‘the nature of deliberation’, saw a choice between alternative projects as being preceded by a dramatic rehearsal in imagination of various competing possible lines of action. It is an experiment in making various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon’ (Dewey 1922, p. 190).
For Schütz such moments of ‘dramatic rehearsal’ apply to situations in which our knowledge of possibilities becomes open, questionable, or problematic. In these moments we have to suspend our belief in what we take for granted. Such choices only happen in situations that ‘give rise to a decisive new experience: the experience of doubt, of questioning, of choosing and deciding, in short, of
deliberation’ (Schütz 1951, p. 169):
All projecting consists in an anticipation of future conduct by way of phantasying. […] Metaphorically speaking I have to have some idea of the structure to be erected before I can draft the blueprints. In order to project my future action as it will roll on I have to place myself in my phantasy at a future time when this action will already have been accomplished, when the resulting act will already have been materialized. Only then may I reconstruct the single steps which will have brought forth this future act (Schütz 1951, p. 16).
When Schütz couples ‘phantasying’ with ‘projecting’, he sees them as motivated by a purpose, pointing out that The practicability of the project is a condition of all projecting which could be translated into a purpose. Projecting of this kind is, thus, phantasying within a given or better within an imposed frame, imposed namely by the reality within which the projected action will have to be carried out. It is not, as mere phantasying is, a thinking in the optative mode but a thinking in the potential one (Schütz 1951, p. 165).
Schütz’ arguments can help us understand the practice of PD. In PD ‘imaginative freedom’ is bound by the commitment to support better ways of
performing a particular practice in the future; and not only so:
What we are able to imagine is bound by our cultural-historically inherited collective imaginaries; by the discourses that define and produce the objects of our knowledge and influence how ideas are put into practice; and by (in)vested interests, time, already-existing conditions, and so forth, all of which are part of the 'politics' of PD (Bratteteig and Wagner 2014, p. 17).
The ‘imagining’ part in PD is supported by a variety of techniques. They help designers and users explore, think, tell and enact differently by emphasizing the value of sharing and understanding each other’s imaginings (Bratteteig et al.
2012). Hence, PD builds on imaginative acts that are made concrete in the form of e.g. stories, visual material or playful enactments. The moving from imaginative acts to choices is crucial for design.
In his book ‘The Reflective Practitioner’ (1983) Schön uses the notion of ‘design move’ to describe how designers work: a ‘move experiment’ (or ‘design move’) includes the designer’s evaluation of a situation, a move to change it, and an evaluation of the move. ‘Seeing-moving-seeing’ is a process, in which problems are set and solutions are found and evaluated. Design moves involve different kinds of seeing: seeing what is there (what has been drawn, built) as well as seeing and judging (is this how it should be, does it work?), before taking the next move.
Schön stresses that design moves close some choices whilst opening others. He describes ‘Quist’ [one of the architects he observed] as ‘spinning out a web of moves, consequences, implications, appreciations, and further moves’ (Schön 1987, p.
As the designer reflects-in-action on the situation created by his earlier moves, he must consider not only the present choice but the tree of further choices to which it leads, each of which has different meanings in relation to the systems of implications set up by earlier moves.
Quist's virtuosity lies in his ability to string out design webs of great complexity. But even he cannot hold in mind an indefinitely expanding web. At some point, he must move from a ‘what if?’ to a decision, which then becomes a design node with binding implications for further moves. Thus there is a continually evolving system of implications within which the designer reflects-in-action (p. 62).
Design is about widening the range of choices before taking a decision on which of the choices to concretize in a design move. This is a process that opens up new choices, while closing others – both the opening up and the closing of choices are essential in design (see also Bratteteig and Stolterman 1997).
Schön uses the notion of imagining: while engaging in move experiments like sketching, interacting with materials, designers make use of their imagination and it is precisely this imagining that widens their choices. With each design move some of these choices are closed, while evaluation and reflection of the move
open up for new choices:
And we also have the ability to reflect-in-action to generate new knowing, as when a jazz band improvises within a framework of meter, melody, and harmony: the pianist laying down "Sweet Sue" in a particular way, and the clarinetist listening to it and picking it up differently because of what the pianist is doing-and nobody using words (Schön 1995, p. 130).
Whilst performing, musicians pick up what the others are playing, integrating it and jointly producing new knowing. The imagination becomes a part of reflection-in-action.
When observing designers at work, Schön focused on rather short units of activity. Also Goldschmidt defines a design move as ‘a step, an act, an operation, which transforms the design situation relative to the state in which it was prior to that move’ (Goldschmidt and Weil 1998, p. 89): a design move results in a change of a representation, be it a sketch, a mock-up, or a prototype.
The positions of Schütz and Schön can be seen as complementary. Schütz’ notion of ‘projecting’, emphasizes the need to envision, simulate, draft a blueprint, in order to be able to imagine the (design) idea in future action. In contrast, Schön stresses the experimental, step-by-step character of design work, the imagining and evaluating that is built into each design move.
This leaves us with a conceptual and a methodological problem, which requires clarifying the level of analysis we want to address when talking about decisionmaking in design. Design work involves the making of many small step-by-step choices. It proceeds through subtle shifts and turns of a kind that may only be accessible to an observer through participating in design sessions, capturing the designers’ ‘reflection-in-action’ that Schön portrays (e.g., Newman 1998;
Henderson 1999). However, some of these choices may be taken in a more explicit way, involving the kind of ‘phantasying’ and ‘projecting’ that Schütz describes.
We should not forget that PD projects are intensely collaborative, with users or stakeholders convening to discuss, propose, evaluate solutions, and so forth.
These are activities where the ‘seeing’ of the designer that Schön observed is complemented by argumentation and reflection, and more explicit types of ‘decisions’ will be taken (Bratteteig et al. 2016). Evaluating an evolving prototype (in use) involves observation, the joint critical assessment of these observations and, eventually, new ‘move experiments’. Finally, all design practices involve mundane activities, such as making calculations, scheduling, handing designs over to others for them to control, complete, annotate, etc. All these activities involve choices.
How do we account for these very different types of decision-making? This question is further complicated by two facts, both of which have been described
by Langley et al. (1995):