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.
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.