Participatory Design and You

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Mark Dabbs

25 Feb 2019 - 4 min read

Who determines great design? Is it the person who came up with the idea, the designer themselves, or the end-users – who will ultimately use a product? If you said end-users, you’d be right! During the design process, including these end-users, alongside stakeholders, is at the heart of participatory design. Everyone has a role to play in product design today, and the benefits are quite remarkable.

Participatory Design TL;DR

If you’re in a hurry –

  • All stakeholders are involved – Project Owner, Designers, and End-Users.
  • Closely tied to all of the principles of a Minimum Viable Product.
  • End-users help to answer a lot of questions much earlier in the design and launch process compared to “traditional” design approaches.
  • Gives you a direct line to what your customer (end-users) want.
  • Eliminates a lot of guesswork – all design decisions are validated by user data.
  • Saves you time and money by avoiding undesired features and functions.

But, for those of you wanting to know more, we’ve written a more detailed guide. Without further ado:

What is Participatory Design?

Also known as cooperative design or co-design, participatory design is a process in which all stakeholders are involved with design decisions. Stakeholders include the project owner, employees, developers, designers, and most importantly, end-users. Without end-user involvement, we can only guess at what end-users will want, like, how they will use a product, and what features they will use most. To rectify that, participatory design asks, and better yet – involves – end-users in the design process to maximize user feedback.

What is Not Participatory Design?

Until recently, the goal of design projects was geared all too often towards pleasing the project owner – the senior manager, executive, or founder paying for the design. The founders of some startups often think they have a great idea and know exactly what they want to see. So, who’s to blame when the designer delivers a design per the project owner’s spec, but the people it was designed for hate it? An idea for a profitable app is not great until a) customers tell you it’s great, and b) buy into its monetization methods.

Millions of apps have been created only to receive little or no use – because just about everything about them was predicated on guesswork. Many were designed like it’s 1999:

“…launching a startup in 1999 meant raising lots of money, spending 9 months in development and then launching with massive PR. Frequently failing as a startup to get a product/market fit, companies relaunched repeatedly until they ran out of money or got lucky.”

Often enough, guesswork is a leading root cause of failure, as we examined in Why Startups Fail – A Matter of Process? Projects that must fit the founder’s vision perfectly, but for which there is no market validation, are extremely high-risk projects.

Stakeholders Include End-USers

End-user feedback does not diminish the importance of the project owner’s input or designer ideas. Their feedback never violates the rules of what constitutes good design – it defines it. You never hear customers saying, “Gee, I wish this app was harder to use!”

Mobile design strives for simple, goal-focused functionality: it’s not just about building a beautiful product. If people find your app unintuitive or hard to use, they’ll most likely not bother to use it.  – Artem Petrov, CEO of Reinvently

Does participatory design mean end-users are directly involved in the decision-making process of your app’s design? Tricky question! Typically no, but their direct feedback and the data you are able to gather through their use of your app plays a critical role in all decisions.

Internal tracking can show what screens or functions they access most frequently, and how much time they spend with each. That’s vital info to help minimize the number of clicks, swipes or other interactions needed to perform the most common tasks. Internal tracking of end-users can help identify new or different user groups, unanticipated use cases, poor flow or lack of clarity on how a feature works. All can be validated then by asking users directly how they felt with each product interaction.

Project Owners and Participatory Design

It is vitally important for the project owner to be highly engaged throughout the product’s entire design and development. The project owner can delegate this effort to a project coordinator. Preferably, this should be someone intimately knowledgeable about your business and what your app needs to accomplish.

The design process includes meetings to review progress, user feedback, and making decisions. It proceeds in stages where one part can only begin after another is finished. But, each stage is only finished when you say it is. A lack of engagement by the project owner or coordinator can lead to needless delays.

The Designer’s Role in Participatory Design

Designers… design. Traditionally, they were largely told what to design. In participatory design, however, their goal is to translate your vision and user feedback into a product that everyone loves. Easier said than done, but not impossible, as there’s an abundance of “best design practice” guidance available.

We’ve consolidated a lot of that guidance into a very lengthy UI/UX checklist. Competitive analysis, data requirements, user stories and personas, user flows, red routes, and many other elements factor into great design. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot easier to know what users will love when you can ask them directly. Prototyping and iterating, alongside honest feedback from the project owner, can nail that otherwise elusive design everyone loves at first sight.

Participatory Design and MVPs

Starting in 2001, design processes started changing as the idea of Minimum Viable Product (MVP), and variations of it, gradually took hold. An MVP approach frontloads most of the hard questions about a product, starting with, “Will users love it, will they buy it, and how much will they pay for it?” Maximizing user feedback is a primary objective of an MVP:

“An MVP starts out with a streamlined version that focuses on the feature set your customers will “Love to Use” while also maximizing your user feedback. Advantages include lower development costs for the first release, faster time to market, and faster monetization potential. It also enables collecting more data earlier to define improvements and new features. I’d say almost all customers find the MVP-style launch a lot more to their liking.”

– Michael Mahmood, Reinvently’s Head of User Experience.

Focusing on the one reason why people will want to use your product, over any other options, is essential to an MVP. It keeps you from investing time and money into features that end-users won’t want, rarely use, and it avoids feedback on “bad features” from drowning out feedback on what’s really most important.

End-User Feedback and Crowdfunding Platforms

As startups can use all the money they can get, I feel it’s important to talk about crowdfunding as a natural fit to the MVP approach.   MVPs often begin with little more than notes scribbled on a wet napkin. I am being a little facetious there as crowdfunding involves a lot of marketing and social networking effort.

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo do offer thousands of great examples of how an MVP often starts. It’s possible for you to begin monetizing your idea before you hire anyone to start on design or development. Before dismissing crowdfunding, take a look at some of the Crowdfunded Projects just in the “Apps” category on Kickstarter.

It is our opinion that most of those who jump into crowdfunding for the first time do not have a very good idea of what they are getting into. Successful crowdfunding projects usually require a combination of a lot of marketing and social networking effort. It’s also our opinion that with over 3 million apps available on the App Store and Google Play, there is a pretty high threshold to meet as for what “constitutes a good crowdfunding project.”

Even so, no other approach will let you “Fail so fast, so frequently and with so little cost” as a crowdfunding project. There’s no need to fear failure. You can acquire an amazing amount of end-user feedback in crowdfunding projects to either validate your idea or send it back to the drawing board.

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