Participatory design is one of Experientia’s strongest people-centred design methodologies, as well as one of our favourites.
We’ve used participatory workshops and co-creative activities in North and South America, Asia, Australia, and Nordic and Continental Europe, to design product and service concepts ranging from websites to public saunas, from mobile phone applications to office spaces. We’ve worked with people from all walks of life, from Finnish entrepreneurs to India’s rural communities, and our methods include comprehensive processes with entire business departments to on-the-spot idea generation with people we’ve met on the street.
In short, we believe that whether we’re designing a website, a physical product, a service, or a process, involving the people who will be using it in the creation process makes for a better result. This is because people are usually the best experts on their own lives. By using co-creation, we create an outcome that combines people’s own knowledge about their beahviours and wants with Experientia’s design expertise.
Our participatory design activities include concept ideation, collaborative prototyping, card sorting, and scenario and concept testing — all aimed at fostering the evolution of relevant concepts and the development of prototypes.
Participatory processes have provided inspiration and input for many of our projects and deliverables, including fashion websites, foresight projects, mobile application concepts, pharmacy services, and sustainable events and services.
Our designers work alongside people to guide the participatory activities. Their role is to allow people’s beliefs and contexts, aspirations and behaviours to emerge in a spontaneous and genuine way: then they use their design expertise to transform the ideas and insights from the process into visualisations, suggestions, prototypes, stories and patterns, which will all be used in creating the eventual design concept.
Particularly when we’ve worked with cultures that are very different from those of our designers (who themselves come from all over the world), participatory methods have helped us to build an accurate picture of cultural and contextual behaviours and ways of using products or services. Working directly with people in their own communities helps us to build a shared understanding of their beliefs and aspirations in daily life.
Participatory methods help designers to:
- Define themes that involve ethical, social or cultural aspects and may call for a choice between fundamental values and principles.
- Find solutions that call for a combination of public awareness, learning, and emotional or moral involvement with the eventual decision.
- Map the consolidated habits which are questioned and argued within the small audience of the participants.
- Encourage rich, creative, and divergent contributions from potential users, releasing inhibitions, and opening up new thinking.
We often use participation and collaboration throughout the entire design process, for innovations at all stages of the product lifecycle. In pre-design phases we explore people’s needs, desires, ambitions and behaviours. In the design phase we look at more concrete attributes of the product or service, such as how people think it should look, feel and act. Even in in the implementation and use phases, participatory approaches can help us to understand whether a product or service is doing what people want it to do, and to explore how it should evolve from the users’ perspectives, and whether any innovative and surprising usages are emerging.
By designing with people, instead of for people, we discover what is relevant and important to them, then use our design expertise to realise it in a robust, useful and beautiful package.
Low2No – why a sauna means better business in Finland
Low2No is a building block being developed in Helsinki, Finland, which will have no or low carbon emissions. As part of the team, Experientia concentrated on ensuring a people-centered, participatory approach, referring to stakeholders throughout the process. This included the original client, Sitra, future potential inhabitants, local politicians and commercial representatives, and entrepreneurs to run the service offerings of the building block.
One example of participation in the project was working with potential future inhabitants of the block, to discuss what kinds of services they felt would help them to live more sustainably, and to get feedback on the early apartment designs. Participants worked individually and groups with 2D and 3D maps of the apartment layouts, to show us how they would like to have their space organised in their daily lives. The feedback from these workshops was communicated to the architects working on the project, so that they could use it as a reference point in their next design iteration.
Another example of how participation created value for the project can be seen in the idea to improve sustainability through the creation of a communal sauna, rather than individual saunas in each apartment, as is Finnish custom.
When collecting information for Sitra’s new headquarters, Experientia conducted a series of interviews and participatory design workshops with their staff members, to understand their unique needs in terms of working space, layout of floors and offices, communication and work flows. A surprising, culturally-specific insight from these workshops was the importance of a sauna in Finnish business.
Sitra staff members told us they frequently take their clients to the sauna, and sometimes even continue their business meetings there informally. Inspired by Sitra, the project team decided to build a communal sauna in the new building, which would run as a business accessible to the general public and the building inhabitants. The entire sauna service was then co-designed as a sustainable business, together with local inhabitants and the entrepreneurs who will eventually run the service. The participatory process highlighted how important this Finnish custom is, and also signalled how willing people were to return to the traditional style and values of a communal sauna, and what they would like to see as part of the sauna services.
Co-creating in emerging markets – how to use a mobile phone when you can’t read
(Socially emerging, Vodafone)
From reading the name of a contact to navigating a menu, mobile phones rely a lot on our ability to read. This is a huge challenge when targeting those billions of people in emerging markets who have low levels of literacy, or who speak a language that is not available on most mobile phones.
We conducted a workshop with people from low-income groups in rural and peri-urban India, many of whom also had low literacy levels. This challenge also changed the nature of our workshop activities. We focused strongly on images and the spoken word, encouraging people to use stickers and pictures cut from magazines to tell us about themselves and what they wanted from a mobile phone.
Within the two-day co-design workshops, participants were divided into groups consisting of one Vodafone representative, one Indian facilitator/designers, and one local participant. The participants were led through a series of structured activities expressing themselves through storytelling, collages and writing (or where appropriate, drawing) on paper.
- Identify Collage exercise – This task asked participants to construct their identity for us, and identify their aspirations and professional needs. Contextual problem scenarios were identified and used as a starting point in the visualization of their identities on mobile devices.
- Story-telling exercise – With whom do you share your phone? As participants answered this question with stories from their everyday lives, they offered the research team insights about their lifestyles, and their interaction with the people and places around them.
- Information courtyard discussion – What kind of content would you like to share in the village or with a wider audience? This exercise used the metaphor of a ‘magic’ public announcement board to imagine reaching wider audiences through the use of internet on mobile phones.
- Magic Box exercise – Imagine you had a magic box, how could it help you fill a need? List functions, contents, ideas for community sharing, sketch screens, and make “prototypes”. The aim of this task was to release participants from preconceptions about the use of the mobile phone, particularly its voice-based functions.
- Bazaar exercise – Take the magic box and explain the product. Communicate the idea to others and try to “sell” it to them. This role-playing method aimed to gauge people’s ability to grasp concepts, appreciate functions and assign value to the designs. Facilitators probed which functions and values seemed to have most value to the participants and encouraged their visualization. Participants then developed rough concept prototypes to express key ideas.
- Card-sorting exercise – This task required people to organize cards spatially, in ways that made sense to them. This helped to expose people’s mental models of a device or a system. Their organisation revealed their expectations and priorities about the intended functions.
Based on the insights gathered in the ethnographic research and the co-creative workshops, design concepts for products and services for mobile devices were developed, tailored to the behaviours and contexts of people in emerging markets. They focused on how these people can carry out daily tasks, and imagined solutions outside of the usual commercial alternatives, taking advantage of existing networks and workflows.
See the mobile phone concepts that were developed in the project in our video prototype.
Designing the pharmacy of the future with the people who work there
(CVS Pharmacy, USA)
CVS Pharmacy is the largest pharmacy chain in the world. The company asked Experientia to expand their innovation process through a better understanding of what the current pharmacy experience looks like and in helping them to conceptualize what the pharmacy experience might look like in the future. For this project, Experientia worked together with the Launch Institute (USA) and the Design Academy (USA), to conduct extensive ethnographic research in pharmacies in Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
As part of the analysis and design process, the research team involved the people from CVS. We worked with the CVS creative team in idea generation workshops and brainstorming sessions, but we also worked with employees from the stores, who meet the customer every day.
With employees from stores in CT, RI and MA (USA), we devised concept ideas directly with pharmacists, lead techs, front-store staff and store managers. This group spent the first two hours gaining insights into the research results and meeting in small groups to discuss how the insights would impact their own store culture. This interactive design enabled a wide variety of ideas to emerge. Many of the ideas had already been implemented in some of the stores but were not well known by the other stores. Many of the ideas were co-created as a result of the front store and back store working together. This group gained the reputation of being the most prolific group of thinkers and their daily interaction with the customer was evident in the manner in which they thought of new solutions.
The ideas collected from the creative team focused on innovative solutions around advice, logistics, and environmental aspects (such as physical appearance and design of the pharmacy), while the employee group was able to give insights into solutions for dealing effectively, efficiently and empathically with customers. The project led to generation of concepts and design solutions for a variety of customer touchpoints – from in-store to technology enabled interactions.
See the concepts that were developed in the project in our video prototype.