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Participatory design: Way for the future

Kathryn Try and Greg Pollock
Commonwealth Bank
The presenters have been involved in a project with a major computer company, to assist in the development of the interface for a new multimedia device. At the same time as the interface was being developed, an application in Electronic Performance Support was being developed for use on the device. This paper outlines the participatory design model which was used, and relates the experiences of the various phases and the skills which wore utilised in each phase. This paper will discuss the strengths of the Design model and the prototyping methods employed will be demonstrated. Video clips of the model at work will be shown during the presentation.

Background to the task

It is rather a daunting, but yet exciting task to be given the opportunity to participate in the DESIGN of a technology device and its interface. The first task is to redefine the word "user". The focus of system design is usually biased towards the technology, and the "user" is generally someone to whom the technology will be assigned. Suddenly the "user" becomes involved in the PROCESS of the design - swing the iterative nature of design and the changing conception of what one is designing as a result of the process itself. This in turn, demands a different concept of "work", for now "work" must be seen as a situated activity, taking place at particular times, in particular places, and in relation to specific social and technological circumstances.

Having redefined the meanings of "user" and "work", different methods of research need to be adopted. No longer can the "designer" sit in a research environment apart from the "users", and so an action research method employing both ethnography and interaction analysis is used. Both of these methods require extensive observation - the first studies the activities and the relations between them in complex social settings, and the other deals with the interaction of people with each other and with their environment.

The tasks themselves

The easiest way of recording this observation is by means of videotape. The first task is to understand Peoples' current work practice, using. whatever technology or tools are available to them. It is usually advisable to observe both "experts" and "novices" in their work environments carrying out the same procedures, with the result generally showing that there are multiple solutions to the "problem". A rough content log of the entire tape is made either during the video shoot itself, or else when the session is complete. Such a log describes observed events and indexes them chronologically by clock time. This rough summary of what happened can expedite the process of searching for particular remembered instances. In addition, the log identifies issues raised in the course of viewing the tape. Frequently, a sequence of recorded activity is picked out as being of particular interest and deserving of more systematic analysis.

A first step towards such analysis may be a transcription. Though transcribing talk is almost always central to any interactional study, detailed sequential analysis can also focus on non-vocal dimensions of interaction such as the participants' gaze, gestures and body positions. In addition, if there are artefacts or technologies being used in the interactions, these should also be analysed. The task of the interaction analysis is to uncover the regularity and efficacy of peoples' relations with each other and their use of the resources that their environment affords. Having a videotape in hand in no way eliminates the need for thoughtful interpretation of the meaning of the events it records. However, video based interaction analysis affords a powerful corrective to our tendency to see in a scene what we expect to see! It is also important to work through the primary materials several times, for it is in these repetitions that theoretical insights arise, and so the analysis becomes like iterative design.

Moving into the design

In applying video analysis to design, methods am developed that encourage the move from analysis to development to further analysis. The goal is to tie both intuitions and technological possibilities to detailed understandings of real work practice. What is being attempted here is the combination of both reflection and practice. As a consequence of personal preference, experience and training, different people in the group will distribute themselves across the various perspectives, and this is where the real collaboration begins.

The diagram below indicates the kind of contributions that one perspective can make to another. Greenbaum and Kyng (1991) describe it thus:

What the participative design approach is trying to achieve is collaboration between the action research, the rich descriptions and the future visions and it is the videotape medium which can act as a catalyst for achieving this.

Mock ups and prototypes

The participative design model involves a shift from a product to process orientation not only in the research aspect but also in the development of the system themselves. This invariably leads to the use of "mock ups" and prototypes. Children have always been good at using mock ups, and even for adults, the use of mock ups can be most seductive, particularly when one considers the type of use they are put to at computer exhibitions! Mock ups encourage active user involvement and actually help users and designers transcend the borders of reality and the impossible. Mock ups work because: The difference between a mock up and a prototype is not whether they use computers or not, but rather the move from the support for the overall envisionment provided by the use of the mock up, to the possibility of demonstrating real computer based functionality provided by a real prototype. Sometimes it is useful to mix the two - to use a computer based prototype and a mock up.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Video as a medium for conversation and learning

Prototypes are useful in uncovering those aspects of users' work which have not yet been articulated. They also allow users to contribute to the design of improved tools. Relative to the mock up, a prototype better shows dynamic aspects of the future application.

Traditional prototyping has usually relied on the perspectives of designers and software engineers, rather than trying to involve the users in the design process. The cooperative prototyping approach however, aims to establish a design process where both users and designers are participating actively and creatively, drawing on their different attributes and experiences. To facilitate such a process, the designers must somehow let the users experience a fluent work like situation with a future computer application, that is, users' current skills must be brought into contact with new technological possibilities. This can be done in a simulated work situation, or even better in the actual environment itself. To fully experience a prototype, users need to be in control of its use for a reasonable period of time. The designers should anticipate its use in the situation and rebuild and "clean up" the prototypes in between the prototyping sessions.

The project management skills involved in iterative prototyping are more likened to those of a jazz band conductor than a chamber music conductor. Personal attributes are sometimes as, if not more important, than specific skills: openness to new ideas and viewpoints; tolerance for ambiguity; persistence; ability to let go of an idea or approach after having spent a lot of time developing it and starting over when another thing looks better; ability to work synergistically; attention and love of detail.


Users are not there to annoy the designers or to spoil their "wonderful" design, but to guide them, because the users know the relevant work tasks. Users are not necessarily good designers of computer systems, but even awkward suggestions may be grounded in tacit knowledge related to aspects of the work that the designers do not fully understand. Designers will perhaps have to study the work of the users more carefully and discuss it with them further before the suggestions can be understood or turned down. The users are the key to the design of a useful system and the designers are the key to propagating the user demands into the technical design of the system.

The experience of the participatory design process is ultimately a rewarding one for all concerned, because the product truly belongs to everyone.


Gery, G. (1993). Electronic performance support system. Seminar Notes, Sydney.

Greenbaum, J. & Kyng, M. (1991). Design at work. Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum & Associates.

Laurel, B. (Ed). (1990). The art of human-computer interface design. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

Norman, D. (1988). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.

Authors: Dr Kathryn Try and Greg Pollock
Planning and Research, Training Services
Commonwealth Bank of Australia
552 George Street, Sydney NSW 2000
Tel. 02 261 6951 Fax. 02 261 6944

Please cite as: Try, K. and Pollock, G. (1994). Participatory design: Way for the future. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 558-560. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/qz/try.html

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