Participatory Design

When I began exploring the concept of co-design earlier this year the methods surrounding Participatory Design seemed like a natural place to start.

The book Participatory Design: Principles and Practice edited by Douglas Schuler and Aki Namioka in 1993 provides an excellent overview of the history and values surrounding this approach, specifically questions of democracy, power and control at the workplace. The articles that stand out for me include:

  • Joan Greenbaum: Participatory Design in the US
  • Pelle Ehn: Scandinavian Design: Participation and Skill
  • Jeanette Blomberg: Ethnographic Field Methods
  • Bodker, Gronbaek and Kyng: Cooperative Design

Later that same year, ACM published a special issue on Participatory Design (Volume 36, Number 4, 1993). It’s a gold mine of specific techniques related to participatory practice. The University of Queensland has posted an entire archive of that issue online in PDF format.

Michael Muller, Daniel Wildman and Ellen White’s introduction: Taxonomy of PD Practices [PDF 3.4MB] serves as a fantastic index of the techniques described in the ACM issue and referenced in the Participatory Design book.

As I’ve read more about the history of PD it seems to be focused almost exclusively on the development of digital computing systems. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising given the time period; in some ways it seems more akin to HCI than service design. But while the techniques don’t always seem to be a match for the problems service designers encounter many of the principles still seem to resonate.

For example: the proximity to the site where work is performed helps influence whether design ideas are general or specific. When you’re onsite it’s easier to focus on particular problems in the immediate environment. On the other hand if you’re gathered in a conference room miles away it promotes a higher-level analysis. Sometimes it’s helpful to zoom in and out in this way.

Another purely political observation is that while it’s important for a participatory process to have the full support of management, and for that support to be understood (and believed) by employees, the presence of those with the power to hire or fire can have a chilling effect on the frank assessment of shortcomings in a particular system. This is a theme echoed in many of the other approaches I’ve studied as well.

It’s been 16 years since these resources were published and I’m sure the practice has continued to evolve. Last year Indiana University hosted a conference on participatory design and it would be interesting to learn more about the state of the art. Unfortunately I haven’t had much success in digging up papers from the proceedings. Any leads?

  1. PD is really important, although it might seem as if they focus solely on digital interaction design. But, as you noticed the scope is wider; in Scandinavia it started out with empowerment and emancipation when introducing IT in workplaces during the 70’s. I’m writing a piece touching on this for the Nordic Service Design conference, later this fall.
    More about the PDC conferences you can find at and the organisation that archives the proceedings is CSPR,


  2. Thanks Jeff, I enjoy reading your detailed and thoughtful posts.

    For the last two years (2004 and 2006 – its a bi annual conference) PDC has been published by the ACM.

    2008 is yet to be uploaded, but there is a printed proceedings.

    2010 will be held in Sydney.

    PD is still the centre of a lot of work in Scandanvia, but also worldwide – though with a very academic bent. As you’ve noted Liz Sanders is one of the most prominent in the US. Some (random and academically focused) start points for PD since the excellent publications you mentioned might be:

    Muller, M.J.: Participatory design: the third space in HCI. The human-computer interaction handbook: fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging applications. L. Erlbaum Associates Inc. (2003) 1051-1068

    Brereton, M., Buur, J.: New challenges for design participation in the era of ubiquitous computing. CoDesign 4 (2008) 101 – 113

    Spinuzzi, C.: The Methodology of Participatory Design Technical Communication 52 (2005) 163-174

    Kensing, F., Blomberg, J.: Participatory Design: Issues and Concerns. Computer Supported Cooperative Work 7 (1998) 167-185

    Lee, Y.: Design participation tactics: the challenges and new roles for designers in the co-design process. CoDesign 4 (2008) 31 – 50

    Dittrich, Y., Eriksén, S., Hansson, C.: PD in the Wild; Evolving Practices of Design in Use Participatory Design. CPSR, Malmö, Sweden, (2002)

    Other good background PD books include:

    Ehn, P.: Work-Orientated Design of Computer Artifacts. Arbetslivscentrum, Stockholm (1988)

    Greenbaum, J., Kyng, M. (eds.): Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Lawrence Erlbaum Associated, New Jersey (1991)

    You might also particularly look our for work by Jeanette Blomberg, who was at Parc in the 80’s but now works at IBM and is focused on Service Design, including how PD translates into this space.


  3. Jeff

    Wow Penny, thanks for that fantastic list of references. Looks like I’ve got some reading ahead of me. And Stefan, I’d certainly be interested in learning more about the parallels between SD and PD; I’ll look forward to reading the paper when it becomes available.

  4. Heips Jeff
    To add to Penny’s list you can check this article:
    On Participation and Service Innovation by Jeanette Blomberg. It was published in an “interaction design” oriented book earlier this year called (Re)Searching the Digital Bauhaus… would give you good pointers.

    The latest PD conferences have also included articles from architecture, arts, development cooperation… you name it. Still there is a lot of roots on systems design but you are bound to encounter those in service design more and more these days so the connections are multiple IMHO

  5. Hi Jeff and others,

    Thanks for all the links and knowledge re PD.

    Another useful resource which might help is the journal CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts

    Of most use might be Issues 1 and 2 which were Special Issues titled Design Participation(-s).

    One of Penny’s list of papers is in one of these issues.

    You might need to either subscribe or have academic library access to the journal here:


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