August 2009

Participatory design can be a challenging approach for any designer. And for designers in a transformation process, who are just learning the human-centered approach, it can be difficult to know how to engage participants in the learning process with you.

A few things that have helped us be more “participatory” in the prototyping phase:
– Put making connections first. Before focusing on your ideas, focus on the participants. On some hospital floors we have great relationships with influential nurses. They are our cheerleaders and sales people. They help us learn more and they feel ownership over the ideas because they have been involved in them. On other floors we don’t have that relationship yet, and it shows. The nurses look at the ideas as “yours, not mine” and aren’t enthusiastic about trying them out.
– Always have a cover sheet. A cover sheet that describes your goal or objective. Start with that and get feedback from the staff. Then, once you have their ideas, you can begin to explain your proposed solution (hopefully adapted to accommodate their suggestions)
– When building ideas with participants, it can be a lot to ask for them to invent ideas on the spot. Instead, tell them about your goal, and ask for stories and examples of times when that goal seemed possible, and times when it didn’t. Look for the characteristics that are important to them, and imagine solutions.
Many of the tools for engaging participants are just good HF. But the context of prototyping is so different from initial research, that the team can easily forget to apply what they know about asking open-ended questions and listening. A refresher has been helpful.


If you have a hammer…

As a user-centered designer, everything looks like part of the innovation process. Listening to Paul Romer’s TED talk about Charter Cities helps me illustrate the purpose of setting up prototypes and experiments before introducing new concepts into the world.


Romer describes Hong Kong as a prototype that China and Britain built to test a new way of living in China. The test was successful, and China opened up new rules of capitalism across the rest of the country. But only after testing out the system in a small, subset of the country.


He is proposing that Guantanamo Bay in Cuba be redefined and redeveloped by Canada and other countries as another experiment. Castro can allow Canada to develop a city with new rules, new ideas. People from around the world– including Cube– can choose to participate. If it is successful, it may change the way Castro approaches the rules for the rest of Cuba.


Romer make a powerful point about what can hold us back from prototyping. He brings up the word “Colonialism” and talks about the emotions that come up and get associated with this idea. These emotions can hold us back from trying something important. We need to reach out to others around us to test our assumptions and set up the experiment carefully. But not shy away from trying.