Bringing Design to Software
© Addison-Wesley, 1996

Profile 14.

Participatory Design
Profile Authors: Sara Kuhn and Terry Winograd

The field of participatory design grew out of work beginning in the early 1970s in Norway, when computer professionals worked with members of the Iron and Metalworkers Union to enable the workers to have more influence on the design and introduction of computer systems into the workplace. Kristen Nygaard—who was well known for his computer-science research as codeveloper of SIMULA, the first object-oriented language—collaborated with union leaders and members, to create a national codetermination agreement, which specified the rights of unions to participate in the design and deployment decisions around new workplace technology.

In the following decades, several projects in Scandinavia set out to find the most effective ways for computer-system designers to collaborate with worker organizations to develop systems that most effectively promoted the quality of work life. The DEMOS project, conducted in Sweden in the second half of the 1970s, involved an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the fields of computer science, sociology, economics, and engineering. Sponsored by the Swedish Trade Union Federation, its focus was "trade unions, industrial democracy, and computers" (Ehn, 1992, p. 107). Researchers worked with union members at a locomotive repair shop, a daily newspaper, a metalworking plant, and a department store.

In the locomotive repair shop, DEMOS participants were brought in because union members were unhappy with a computer-based planning system being introduced by management. Originally, the call for assistance was motivated by controversy over the amount of time assigned to different work tasks; after working together, however, union members and researchers saw that the overall assumptions of the system (that work could be deskilled, and that all planning was a management prerogative) formed the chief issue. As a result, the union conducted its own investigation into production planning, and called attention to significant problems with materials organization, job design, and overall planning that were hindering production efficiency. Insight into the production process and its relationship to computer-system design and job design led the union to formulate a series of principles and positions that it could then use as a basis for bargaining with management (Ehn, 1992).

The UTOPIA project was a collaboration between Swedish and Danish researchers and the Nordic Graphic Workers’ Union. It developed and applied a work-oriented approach to the design of computer-based tools for skilled workers. The project team explicitly sought to reinforce and enhance skilled workers’ control over process and methods, focusing on computer assistance for page makeup and image processing for newspapers.

Pelle Ehn, a primary participant in the UTOPIA project, describes its design philosophy, which they called the tool perspective:

Good systems cannot be built by design experts who proceed with only limited input from users. Even when designers and prospective users have unlimited time for conversation, there are many aspects of a work process—such as how a particular tool is held, or what it is for something to "look right"—that reside in the complex, often tacit, domain of context. The UTOPIA researchers needed to invent new methods for achieving mutual understanding, so that they could more fully understand the work world of graphics workers.

The UTOPIA project applied innovative design techniques, such as the use of role-playing scenarios with low-fidelity mockups to give the workers a feel for what their work might be like with new technology. In the end, UTOPIA produced a working system, called TIPS, that was tested at several newspapers, and was eventually sold to a company that developed image-processing systems.

There has been some participatory design in the United States in the Scandinavian style (see, e.g., Sachs, 1995), and widespread use of design techniques that are based on participatory design. Greenbaum and Kyng (1991, p. 4) identify four issues for design:

These principles apply in all workplaces, regardless of the specific interactions between workers and management. They are at the root of design approaches that have been developed with names such as contextual inquiry (Holtzblatt, 1993), situated activity (Suchman, 1987), work-oriented design (Ehn, 1988), design for learnability (Brown and Duguid, 1992) situated design (Greenbaum and Kyng, 1991). An ongoing series of conferences on participatory design, organized by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (see Schuler and Namioka, 1993), has provided an opportunity for participatory-design concepts and practices to move beyond their original settings to a larger community of software designers.

Today, some of the concepts of participatory design are becoming standard practice in the computing industry. The emerging common wisdom in the major software-development companies is that it is important to design with the user, rather than to design for the user (as highlighted in De Young's account in Chapter 13). Participatory-design researchers have devised a variety of techniques to facilitate the communication of new technology possibilities to workers—to give the ultimate users insight into what it would be like to work with an envisioned system. These techniques include the low-fidelity mockups and role-playing activities of UTOPIA, as well as technology-aided methods such as the use of quick-and-dirty video animation to simulate the patterns of interaction with a new interface (see Muller et al., 1993; Muller, 1993).

In a panel at the 1994 Participatory Design Conference, Tom Erickson of Apple Computer set out four dimensions along which participation by users could be measured:

The original participatory-design movement was at the high end of all these scales. Designers worked over the full development cycle with a highly involved group of worker representatives. These representatives considered every aspect of the computer system being developed and of the deployment planned for it. They were in a setting where their labor–management agreements guaranteed that they had significant control over the outcome. As Kuhn describes in Chapter 14, there was a focus on issues of industrial democracy.

In many software-design settings, the degree of participation along these dimensions may not be uniformly high. The overall principles of participatory design, however, are relevant: The conceptual approach and its repertoire of techniques are applicable across a wide range of products and design settings.

Suggested Readings

Susanne Bodker. Through the Interface: A Human Activity Approach to User Interface Design. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991.

Joan Greenbaum and Morten Kyng. Design at Work. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1991.

Michael Muller and Sarah Kuhn (eds). Special Issue on Participatory Design, CACM 36:4 (June, 1993).

Douglas Schuler and Aki Namioka, (eds). Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993.