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Participatory Design acknowledges that we, as design researchers, are not seeking truth. What we gain from our interactions with participants is biased toward the questions we need to answer.  The ideas that spark innovation and that are most inspiring to us as people who are intending to solve a problem—can come from many places.

With that in mind, Brendon Clark inspired me with the ways in which he has been exploring the boundaries of how much control he can give to others when he works with users and stakeholders in the field. Yesterday, in a chat with Brendon, a great influence of Participatory Design thinking for me, I realized myself how little control I give to those around me. He asked why.

“I… am trying to preserve the accuracy.”

Yet I have always acknowledged that the purpose of my approach is inspiration. When people ask me how I can stuffy only 6 people, I tell them that it only takes one clarifying story to change everything.

If I gave up some control to the designers and product managers in the field with me—to allow them to pursue the topics of the conversation that are most interesting—mightn’t we all be more inspired?

And the Participatory Design movement in Scandinavian, which I admire so much,  has always been about bringing the user into the conversation as a equal participant.  Easier heard than acted upon, apparently.

I see now how I tend to keep users in the dark during my field sessions—trying not to bias them by telling them what I want to know, or what I find most interesting. I remain neutral in the conversation– open and supportive– but still neutral, holding my card sort close to my chest, so to speak.

Brendon has been studying and writing about Performance as a way to put participants at the center of the conversation for innovation and design. He began his work, at the intersection of Anthropology and Participatory Design, with a focus on users and is now expanding his work to include stakeholders as participants as well. He says, “When you give people a stage, they naturally perform.” He sees our role as researchers as the people who create the stage.

Comments ( 2 )

  • Nurqalisha says:

    It might be helpful to dnissiguith between basic and applied research. It sounds like the product manager wants you to focus on applied research; she wants you to help her team get through the obstacle du jour. It sounds like you are focused on basic research questions: what do the users want, and how do you shape the long term goals of the organization to get everyone there? But, there must be direct applications of some of your basic research. It can be helpful to think about those things, and use them as examples to close the communication and thinking gaps you encounter when talking with managers. Hard scientists have been wrestling with this dilemma ever since the Cold War ended. How do I get funding to study something in the pointless niche of science I occupy? By being able to make a connection to a problem people are facing today.

  • Gianni says:

    Thank you, Paul. Yes, that distinction from Science is heflpul, that does seem to be what our young research discipline is struggling with. But the terms, Basic and Applied seem a bit too stark for the fancy-pants design discipline. Maybe we could jazz it up a bit to Foundational and Focused ? Or Open-ended and Closed-ended. I guess that shows that my bias is to express the value of the first, and the limitations of the latter.

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