By designing with people instead of for people we create products and services that are compelling because they are relevant: putting people first, and letting them take us on the journey of design and innovation.
Traditional models of communication, as exemplified in the term “broadcast media”, usually rested the power of communication with the person sending the message, regarding the audience as passive and receptive. Similarly, in design, power traditionally rested with those doing the creating – asking people what they wanted was part of the process, but in the end designers made the decisions. This paradigm is now radically changing. Innovation is no longer confined to a select group of people who have been hired to create new products and services – it is open, participatory, democratic – and it involves above all the people, who have now become active participants, rather than just “users”.
People are at the heart of human-centred design – their needs, behaviours and drives shape the product or service under creation. Participatory design methods allow this to happen even more directly, giving people the chance to brainstorm, ideate, create and prototype alongside designers, offering a level of insight into real customer needs that often can’t be reached by more traditional survey and focus group methods. While a good design team is able to generate many ideas, often the most difficult part is deciding which of those ideas are the most meaningful and relevant. The obvious solution is to go straight to the person most likely to know – the one who will end up using the product or service.
Participatory design works especially well in extracting latent behaviours and desires that people are unaware of, or unable to express. Instead of simply answering questions, the people involved are welcome to try, propose, discuss, fail, and try again. Because these people aren’t usually designers, with a detailed understanding of design processes and methodologies, participatory methods use games, activities and visual aids to help them to shape their ideas in a way that designers can understand. Above all, it is a cooperative process – designers aren’t being replaced, they’re working with people, guiding activities, allowing human beliefs and behaviours to emerge, and bringing the ideas and desires together into visualisations, suggestions, prototypes, stories and patterns.
This kind of “outsourcing to the community” also allows people to develop an emotional connection with their creation – having invested in the design, developed something that they feel satisfies their needs, they are more likely to find the resultant product or service relevant, useful and fulfilling. This is where the real value of co-creation lies – by allowing multiple voices to be heard and involved in the process, the final outcome is likely to satisfy a wider group of people.
And participation and collaboration don’t need to be confined to any one phase of the product lifecycle – they are relevant in pre-design phases (What are your general behaviours, desires, ambitions, aspirations?), design phases (What is it you want from this product or service, what should it look, feel, act like?) evaluation (Does it do what you want?), and even in the implementation and use phases (What should it do now? How should it evolve? What innovative and surprising usages are emerging?) As people-generated content and applications are showing, people do not simply buy and use a product, but have rather more complicated relationships that involve emotion, attachment and innovation.
People are getting involved at all levels, as individuals or as groups – adding content to citizen news services, designing their own bespoke books, shoes, jeans, even managing football teams and making their own electronic devices. By identifying what they see as the defining moments, features, facts and ideas, people are sharing their perspective, and shaping the world around them into one that they have had a role in creating.