So what is a participatory design workshop?

This blog post is crossposted from my ongoing participatory design project – The LGBTQ Futures Project.

The LGBTQ Futures Project uses a research method that is called participatory design. In our case, the words “participatory” and “design” have multiple meanings. In this blog post, we will walk you through a little bit of the history of participatory design and then outline what these words mean to us. If you are looking for a more thorough treatment of participatory design, see Michael Muller’s book chapter on the topic, “Participatory Design: The Third Space in HCI.”

Participatory design is a research movement that got it’s start in the 1970s in Scandinavia. It started out as part of a labor rights movement that sought to further democratize the workplace by involving workers in designing future work processes. It has since grown into a method that is deployed in a variety of settings in and out of the workplace, with many different populations. We especially appreciate Lucy Suchman’s words, which we first read in Muller’s chapter:

“The agenda in the case of [participatory] design becomes working for the presence of multiple voices not only in knowledge production, but in the production of technologies as knowledges objectified in a particular way.”

We take this quote to mean that participatory design is a way for researchers (and designers) to intentionally take into account varied perspectives, and to question and change the way that knowledge produced from design research is created. In building on this history and respecting the work that went into making this research method what it is, our project looks at both “participatory” and “design” in a few different ways.

First, participatory for us comes through both in the ways that the workshops operate and how our research team and project is constructed. Our workshops are structured in a way so that all participants have opportunities to share, in a safe environment, their experiences and thoughts about the future of technology for LGBTQ people. Participatory for us also comes through in our desire to shine a light on perspectives of people that are rarely, if ever, intentionally heard in the process of creating new and adapting current social technology. Our research team is participatory in that we are made up of people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences in LGBTQ community. We also intentionally are made up of people who either have lived or currently live in the region in which we perform our research.

Second, when most people think of design they think of a designer sitting at a desk in front of a computer working on some advanced software or with a drawing utensil in hand. What we mean when we talk about the word design, is that we are interested in what the future of technology does. Another way to think about this is through “design as inquiry.” Design as inquiry is a way that we as researchers can leverage design to leverage other people’s perspectives (i.e. participatory) and create new knowledge about future perceptions of technology. In other words, we use design as a process through which we ask our workshop participants questions and get them to create mock-ups of future technology that is designed explicitly for their identities.

Participatory design workshops, for us, are the process of intentionally creating space to elicit our participants’ own knowledge of their experiences in order to collectively think about what the future of technology looks like and does for rural LGBTQ people.

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