Design as Participation
Kevin Slavin 2 Contributors
January 17, 201919 Versions


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Kevin Slavin. (NaN). Design as Participation. PubPub, [https://www.pubpub.org/pub/design-as-participation] version: undefined


Kevin Slavin. "Design as Participation". PubPub, (NaN). [https://www.pubpub.org/pub/design-as-participation] version: undefined


Kevin Slavin. "Design as Participation". PubPub, (NaN). [https://www.pubpub.org/pub/design-as-participation] version: undefined
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love this articulation kevin. and now the question is how do designers understand all the participants so that they're not just designing for themselves, so that they're not just repeating the Malkovich Bias that continues to plague tech? This is where I think the value of applied ethnography/design research is going to become even more central and strategic - as designers are participants they will need to learn how to understand the multiplicity of perspectives from all participants, and then figure out the red thread. This generation of desigeners already intuitively does this - they are better listeners.
Couldn't agree more about the increasing importance of ethnography/design research! With some design challenges, though, the number of different participants may be staggering — with synthetic biology, the participants may be "everyone." How might we scale design research to understand all of the participants in complex systems?
Price was designing not for the uses he wished to see, but for all the uses he couldn’t imagine. This demands the ability to engage with the people in the building as participants, to see their desires and fears, and then to build contexts to address them.
This is exactly why the whole process of creating and designing with user personas has alway bothered me.
the user was born
Oh hai!
As you point out later, Don uses "user" in The Design of Everyday Things (orig "The Psychology of Everyday Things") in 1986, but even earlier than that was a book he edited, User Centered System Design (http://www.amazon.com/User-Centered-System-Design-Human-computer/dp/0898598729), a title which is also meant to be funny, because Don was teaching at UCSD at the time.
M-W has "user-friendly" debuting in 1977 (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/user%E2%80%93friendly), which suggests "user" must predate that.
Great piece!
oh! thx for this and all the subsequent references, I'm looking at them now... I'm interested to find the actual roots, but I'm always most interested in colloquial adoption, rather than historical precedent. I want to know when the idea of the user became, you know, a thing.
Looking to cultural critic Raymond Williams, a rise in the use and purchase of goods (and therefore users) can also be traced within the etymology of the word consumer. By his account, expounded upon in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), “In almost all its early English uses, consume had an unfavourable sense; it meant to destroy, to use up, to waste, to exhaust. It was from the middle 18th century that consumer began to emerge in a neutral sense in descriptions of bourgeois political economy.”
And the OED goes back to 1959: E. M. McCormick in Digital Computer Primer "The number of instructions which can be executed by a computer represents a compromise between the designer's and user's requirements."
A quick hop into Google Ngram returns a 1937 Highway User Tax Guide from a Highway Users Conference. The term took off around 1960.
The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.
This is wonderful! Thanks Kevin.
It summarises some very deep annoyances I had and could not describe. It unveils the reason why many designers design for themselves (because they can see themselves as a "user") or why every conversation with stakeholders ends up with everyone in the room describing how they would use the product/service (as, again, they also see themselves as a, and perhaps the quintessential, "user").
"Seeing the trees for the forest".
Now we need a word that describes the forest and not the trees, which is perhaps what Don Norman intended by adding "Experience".
The hypothesis is that most designers that are deliberately working with complex adaptive systems cannot help but be humbled by them
Indeed, I'd say there will always be more chance for humility in a conversation than in a monologue. The interactive nature of a conversations has a larger chance in reinin in the hubris, whereas in the monologue the path might be perceived as frictionless and thus rather vulnerable to one's own perception.
I'd correlate conversation with design for complex adaptive systems (which have much of the conversational process inherent to them) and monologues with designing "stuff".
I might be wrong, but didn't software inherit the word "user" from Christopher Alexander? He uses it extensively in all of his writings from very early, but most pointedly in The Oregon Experiment which is all about his massive years-long collaboration with the UoO community in designing their campus: https://books.google.com/books?id=u2NSI4vSu_IC&pg=PA58&dq=inauthor:%22Christopher+Alexander%22+%22users%22&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwii9emp5pPLAhUU1GMKHWJ2CEEQ6AEIHTAA#v=onepage&q=inauthor%3A%22Christopher%20Alexander%22%20%22users%22&f=false Alexander was (maybe with Jacobs) Modernism's great dissident in architecture. And, maybe not conincidentally, has had his greatest influence through software -- particularly in how Ward Cunningham, the creator of the wiki, and the community of the first wiki adopted his Pattern Language ideas for describing systems and (in the wiki itself) his community-centric idea for how to run systems.
At the very least, Eliot Noyes and others at IBM were talking about users before Alexander (John Harwood covers this extensively in his book, "The Interface"), though he fits well into the historical arc around what Kevin is writing about.
I think about the distinction between creative led companies and others in that the creative led solve for questions, the others solve for answers. I believe that this still holds true, but that in the future design will not end with solutions. When systems adapt to other systems, and both systems learn from each other without the intervention of a person, design becomes the place where these systems perform.
And so the role of a creative designer will change from one that provides a solution to a question to one that understands the systems and creates a creative place for them to evolve their own solutions.
I see the humility in the shift to solve for health, environment, food deserts, poverty - complex systems that slap you back in the face with unintended consequences and negative feedback loops when you try to make even incremental change.
But where Joe and Josephine had anatomy, users have behavior, intention, desire.
That's a simple but extremelly powerfull instance.
Price was designing not for the uses he wished to see, but for all the uses he couldn’t imagine.
This is fantastic, one of the most insightful things I have read. But it takes such a large leap of faith, more than most organizations are willing to make.
designers that work with complex adaptive systems. Why are they so much more humble
here, and in the later stated hypothesis—which I agree with—the parallels to Taoism and Zen Buddhism are strong
Important to reflect upon as designers. Unfortunately, too many ascribe the ideas and morals of "participatory design" to the neoliberal disrupters (chills) we ubiquitously use (Amazon, Uber, etc). If we as designers are to be systems-thinkers, we must be able to locate and understand that the artificial and natural world is comprised of numerous systems and systems and systems... and some of these systems, whether logistical, cultural, technological, social, etc. are continually in flux due to huge market shifts. How are we supposed to responsibly and thoughtfully design if we do not understand these systems interactions?
The legacy of Jay Forrester lives on. Thank you.
We can build software to eat the world, or software to feed it.
This is the inversion of User Centric Design. Rather than placing the human at the center of the work, the systems that surround us – systems we depend on – take the appropriate center stage in their complexity, mystery, in their unpredictability
As many, Bruno Latour comes to mind, remind us, design is always redesign, we are always starting in the middle of something (many somethings, as you say), and I've liked to say, the most exciting work of design is unfinished design.
a context for participation
There is this beautiful Greek word koinonia, that predates computers, meaning "to share in the same experience." To me it provides the best definition of communicating today, where the medium is constantly in a state of becoming with design defaming the tombstones of past experiments. A great mind once called it "a life."
unexamined traditions of User-Centric Design, which renders these systems as either opaque or invisible.
from center to participant, this reminds me the process that we thought the earth is the center of universe, the we gradually realized it's not. Now we start to understand that user experience is one experience but maybe should not be the center anymore because beside our feelings, how we interact with the environment, the context is equally important.
well stated, thx. We talk about copernican shifts in some other things we're working on around neuroscience and AI, but I think it's right to think about these kinds of frameworks at every scale.
The Psychology of Everyday Things
Pretty sure the book referred to here is The Design of Everyday things.
The lens of the user obscures the view of the ecosystems it affects.
This is precisely what happens in law, actually; the adversarial system creates two actors out of many, in which the lawyers are supposed to only consider their clients. It is a serious problem.
they understand themselves to be participants, shaping the systems that interact with other forces, ideas, events and other designers
Perhaps the epitome of designers in this postmodern mode will be those that help develop the framework, models, libraries, and methods that are called upon by each and everyone of us, in unique combination, for our interaction with all things digital (which increasingly means all things analogue too as the two irreversibly entwine).
The complex adaptive system around each of us contributes to that combination and is effected by it. Sustainability is served by its distributed, unmediated and open manifestation.
If you like the sound of this Kevin, everyone, love to chat about the hi:project (www.hi-project.org/).
the building is explicitly designed to participate in the built environment around it, as well as the natural environment beyond it, and further into local manufacturing, gardens and agriculture
This is, of course, what makes Frederick Law Olmstead such an important exemplar. For him the design always had to confront both its situatedness and its effects as a design or a platform for situation.
Great reference. Yes. Is there one specific note from Olmstead you could point us to? I'm only familiar with their work at the broadest levels.
a different approach to design
And we see this happening, right? As outlined in this piece, and in so many pieces of evidence out there, including the very existence of this journal. Design is evolving, growing a new corner of its brain, so to speak. From a craft, to a discipline, and now to a science and a philosophy—posing hypothesis, being critical, introducing friction… these are functions of a philosophy. One danger design faces in this evolution, as we have seen with other human endeavors that have followed this path, is to lose touch with its praxis as it climbs higher into theory (which it MUST do in order to tackle things like culture and ethics and strategic work). Something we must be vigilant towards.
That is true, we must be vigilant. But i’m optimistic and enthusiastic. I think that a discipline that evolves itself towards a more participatory approach (enabling participation, and engaging in the participation), is willing to deep dive in the praxis (i like to highlight its will 😃 ). Participation and Friction are both almost onomatopoeia to me. They echo the noise of the moving matter more than refining philosophical concepts.
The designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems
Right on the money with this. It is all about collaboration. Society still struggling with what real collaboration means as the cult of the designer is dying slowly. Although I'm hopeful that the whole concept of the cult of the individual superhero is diminishing, it is happening much more rapidly in design where designers are having to take accountability for interconnected relationships, systems, and cause/effect.
Like other commenters, I like this way of framing the work. Thank you for the helpful language.
But maybe this could be taken further. At least in my reading, this almost but never quite steps off the edge of "design for," to start moving toward "design with." Designing as a participant with the other participants is a frontier for design, and I believe it will be an unavoidable consequence of seeing in terms of participation and complex adaptive systems.
As for the importance of research mentioned in the comments, my view is that research is the wrong tool for complexity. You simply cannot understand all the points of view, much less the dynamics between them and the forces that influence those dynamics. Most of what's going on is invisible and in motion. The tools we've been using for designing complicated things will be inadequate by themselves for creating in complexity.
The shift in approach will involve convening and designing with the other participants in the system. And rather than seeking "solutions" as the outcome of our work, we'll need to involve our fellow participants in noticing whether the system's patterns are becoming more beneficial.
For more good language on this, see Wang, "A New Paradigm for Design Studio Education" (start on page 6 of the PDF if you find the beginningn too thick): http://www.cc.ntut.edu.tw/~tjwang/ijade-29-2.pdf
And I highly recommend the work of Dave Snowden and his company, Cognitive Edge.
Love this use of the word!
by revealing instead of obscuring, by building friction instead of hiding it
I think of this often with the design of AI-centric things too (which, come to think of it, usually operate within - and in response to - the complex systems around them). Why is Google Maps (or my self-driving car) sending me down an abnormal route? Why is my thermostat suddenly going up?
every one of us (designers included) are nothing more than participants in systems that have no center to begin with.
Nice line!
It’s hard to say exactly when the user was born, but it might be Don Norman at Apple in 1993 (referenced by Peter Merholz[10]Peter Merholz. "Whither "User Experience"?". peterme.com. (1998): [http://www.peterme.com/index112498.html] ):“
The term "user" has been around in architecture and design at least since the 60s, if not earlier (Eliot Noyes was talking about users relating to IBM product design in the 50s). Avigail Sachs has a killer piece called "Architects, Users, and the Social Sciences in postwar America" that seems especially relevant here - she shows how the idea of the "user" was a central piece of the strong relationship between design and systems-oriented social science in the 60s and 70s, until the early 80s. It was especially present in community-oriented participatory design, which was happening at MIT in that period (and, of course, contributed heavily to the founding of a certain lab at MIT...)
The essay can be found (in full) in the collection "Use Matters".
rather than the hubris of definition or control
I love how you so gently and logically deflate the idea of human centrality and control. I too have seen designers of complex systems subsume themselves in the service of something they only sort of influence. And now you've left me deeply inspired to think about how the people formerly known as users could themselves become as humbled with the realization of their own peripherality.
To design without an evidence- based, ethnographic approach at this time in age equals to sleepwalking. The effort of pointing the way that it is imperative for us to start moving from a user-centric design ethos which often leads to "aggregates of solutions" (which may be connected or not), towards one that is system's centric & holistic and hits straight into the core of a new design ethos.We are all striving to constinuosly learn, to adapt, to reach a sustainable and long lasting model, one capable of equilibrium and self-regulation. Is there any alternative or choice? I believe there is not. Thank you for a very well articulated, provocative, and enlightened discourse.
The designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems.
Sounds Complex.
Juxtaposing any singular concrete models and views of strictly material systems - as in a context of the SysML modeling language and applications with regards to Europe's AUTOSAR - I believe that the article presents a manner of a socially realistic view of how society ... functions, broadly.
Alternate to the dark shadows of Orwellian narratives, I believe it strikes a chord in a Constructivist sense. That in these complex systems, surely communication must be a thing - I believe that may be towards the nature of my own "Vested Interest," academically. Likewise, I believe it is my "Takeway" of this transaction.
Love this piece and the Journal- thanks! But It seems to me that disruption is not just about users's desires or behaviours it's more about transforming the user all together. Where Henry Ford succeded in making us all into drivers, it's the driver-less car's turn to make us something new. See what I wrote about this here - https://complextochangeblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/08/disruption-means-transforming-your-users/
systems that invite participation instead of demanding interaction
So true! Reminds me of one of Patrick Collison's tweets: "When you think about it, optimizing engagement is a horrifying goal. 'Maximizing attention harvested!'"
complex adaptive systems
complex adaptive systems
In healthcare/ pharmaceutical design, we have yet to move beyond the word 'patient', which implies a level of detachment even one level beyond user... Yet the 'patient's participation is whole and holistic - their interaction (innate and personal) is a part of how well the treatment works... Would love to see the ideas here extend into that realm
"Price was designing not for the uses he wished to see, but for all the uses he couldn’t imagine." Does this not describe the dream for computers but arrived as the smartphone (the computer you have in your pocket)?
I worked at A&TT Bell Labs in the late 70s as a Unix System Administrator and "user" was what we called the people who used our systems. The online etomology dictionary says the term, as related to computers, has been in use since 1967.
Why are they so much more humble than their predecessors who designed, you know, stuff?
Great piece! Are yuo sure they are indeed "More humble"? They definitively should be.. but I am not sure we are quite there yet
Design for participation is exactly the right idea. This concept is just as true in software design these days as in architecture.
In addition to whatever native wit and well-honed craft any interaction designer may possess, each of us also depends upon some form of User Centered Design(UCD) to create products, services, and systems that are hospitable and appealing. Placing human concerns at the center of the design of software-enabled systems has been quite a trick, given that doing so has meant moving technology to a role that is subservient to human needs. But this Copernican shift has led not only to better products, but better process also. That’s because doing interaction design in the proper way also provides everyone greater visibility into and appropriate influence over the development, use, and impact of the systems that are designed.
The problem comes when UCD is taken too literally, for it can also promote a myopia that blurs what’s outside the immediate reach of individuals, preventing us from clearly seeing the inter-woven social, industrial, and environmental ecologies within which people live and companies exist. This must change. Whether interaction designers hear it or not, we are being called upon to address the broader ecological contexts of the companies that build what we design, and those who use the product of our labors. It is, therefore, urgent for our design values, methods, and collaboration habits to evolve. Now.
See more here: https://www.cooper.com/journal/2008/07/beautiful_monsters
and rewards
I'd like to speak about how to do this 'better.' When there are so many obvious rewards for playing it safe in several industries, how can we broaden the approach whereby we reward for transparency? I think it is essential that these essay topics are being posed in design, where free thinking is considered freest.
This is a great read. The latest theories on smart home development are already recognising the need for a process that involves all stakeholders, from those who use the spaces to those who maintain them. Everyone has a voice. Intelligent environments evolve; the process of "design" is exactly that - a process without a point of terminus.
Should designers continue to privilege users above all others in the system? What would it mean to design for participants instead? For all the participants?
Slightly from a different angle than yours, this articulation by Ehn (2008) is quite interesting also / Ehn, P. (2008). Participation in Design Things. In Proceedings of the 8th Participatory Design Conference Experiences and Challenges (pp. 92 – 101). Bloomington, Indiana: CPSR/ACM.
Interesting thanks for that -- wasn't familiar with that before -- interesting to read it in the context of it's pub date right on the eve of the massive change that came with social media.
Interesting thanks for that -- wasn't familiar with that before -- interesting to read it in the context of it's pub date right on the eve of the massive change that came with social media.
Grazie Kevin! Certo in Italia il traffico è veramente folle, a Firenze mediamente 10 minuti a km... quando si è fortunati. 😉
Noi possiamo discutere molto quando siamo in auto!
Ack, you need paragraph breaks.
But we are no longer just using computers. We are using computers to use the world.
This reminds me of Lev Manovich's concept of cultural transcoding in digital media. That it's more than just making our media into bits, it's a fundamental shift in our understanding and relationship to media. The digitization of media starts to push digital ways of thinking into culture. For example, expectations and preferences around language and style (images, glitches) that bleed out of the result of digitization into traditional media, and into our cultural expectations for communication and information exchange.
"We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions." - Shoghi Effendi
More on that idea here: http://bahaiteachings.org/man-organic-with-the-world
I think the future of design is a much more spiritual practice, and one rooted in the concept of service. We have the evolving idea of the servant-leader, and we need to articulate that of the servant-designer. The examples here detail steps along the way, and we see the growing practice of facilitation and the support of groups in their search for truth -- whether it be the truth of the right shape for a physical object, the right behavior for a digital interface, or the just ways for our systems to treat and care for their participants.
If design is the rendering of intent, then of course our ability to render with fidelity and beauty is critical, but above all we must examine, consider, and influence the intent.
The Psychology of Everyday Things
Pretty sure the book referred to here is The Design of Everyday things.
fine piece and most interesting view referring to former - utopian - projects. Question could be (with regard to e.g. Price) whether we should design or supply basic structures as well as the companying elements we ultimately live in. See e.g. Constant's New Babylon: basic structures that facilitate nomadic behaviour but remained untouched where it concerned infra and/or 'architecture' as a way to adapt space tohuman needs.
"You're not stuck in traffic..." What's the correct way to cite an ad campaign? https://www.flickr.com/photos/carltonreid/5260106747/ Is there an earlier source?
Hm. That flickr link seems broken, but if it's a reference to a TomTom ad, it predates the ad for TomTom, and TomTom, and GPS, by many years. I don't know it's original provenance.
. This is the Amazon move: absolute obfuscation of labor
One way to subvert this troubling "obfuscation of labor" trend is to shop local. To physically interact. I'd like to see more efforts by designers in the tech landscape to empower small local business enitities. This could help to create a counterpoint to the monoculture of mega corporations that thrive on this detachment of consumer form worker.
This is the Amazon move: absolute obfuscation of labor and logistics behind a friendly buy button. The experience for a Sprig customer is super convenient, almost magical; the experience for a chef or courier…? We don’t know. We don’t get to know. We’re just here to press the button.”
The end justifying the means, in a pervasive and harmful sense. Specially if we look it from a systems perspective. It's an unsustainable approach to design and it doesn't has humble designers. Guess this way isn't design at all.
OOO uses speculation to characterize how objects exist and interact
Great article Kevin, with some incredibly important points to be taken up in practice as well as theory. However, I'm not convinced OOO can be neatly folded into a design-practice built on participation, emancipation, and reconfiguring the commonspace of human experience. Just because 'things'—computational, technological, cultural, biological—are so predominant in our thinking in critical, cultural and design theory, it is exactly that—our thinking. Human discourse and interaction alone make 'things' into events, speculation into propositions. Carl DiSalvo has outlined a very specific design agenda that can be seen as a similar approach without losing focus on the very real ethical issues of design practice; which he calls 'reconfiguring the remainder'—what is being left out of and, how you rightly state, obfuscated so casually in designed commonspaces when design functions in a complex world where nearly every action (at least in computational processes) occurs on an environmental scale—that is key. Because there we find the potential for new shared complexities and ideas.
derivatives like MAU (monthly
Love this use of the word.
The following link needs a simple fix: http://http//jods.mitpress.mit.edu/
If you didn’t come here through the MIT Media Lab’s Journal of Design and Science, you may find it has deeper context there.
if tv shows have viewers, and cars have drivers, and books have readers, what word do architects use for the people who dwell in the buildings they make?
This doesn't seem like much of a riddle? Inhabitants?