participatory design

Notes re: research — M. Brough

Part of what drew me to Mobile Voices was the question of whether (and how) participatory IT design can lead to more dynamic, effective forms of participation for social change. I was excited by the potential for participatory media projects to move beyond the confines of a given technology like digital video, to design media tools specific to participant-identified needs—while reaping the benefits of learning and empowerment through the design process itself.

It seems that most academic studies of participatory design (PD) have been written from a design perspective rather than from a popular communication or communication for social change perspective, although Freirian methodologies have directly influenced some branches of the PD movement (e.g. Barab et al. 2002; see also Gregory 2003). I think there is room for further theorizing here, as well as for a practical case study for community organizations, which typically start with social—rather than technical—goals. (I acknowledge that in reality, the distinction between social and technical goals functions as more of a spectrum than a binary. My point here is that the literature often seems to start from an interest in the technical.)

I’m therefore considering a two-pronged approach; one is to write a theory-driven academic paper, using Mobile Voices as a case study of participatory design for social change. The other is a practitioner-oriented case study that highlights the ‘lessons learned’ that might be most helpful and generalizable to other participatory and/or community media projects.

Some general questions include: Does PD offer a way for community media or popular communication projects to enhance participation, resulting in a more responsive, less technologically-determined, process? Or does the growing number (and accessibility) of technological possibilities threaten to distract such projects from their social goals? Can a commitment to ongoing action research and/or popular communication methodologies for critical reflection help mitigate this?

For the theoretical paper, conceptualizations of participation as well as PD, co-design and “participatory customization” (Kimaro & Titlestad 2005) will be fleshed out and situated within their historical, socio-political context. PD theory may be reconsidered in light of the evolution of Web 2.0 and user-generated content (UGC). It might also be interesting, in the contemporary context of neo-liberal entrepreneurialism and ‘narrowcasting,’ to further explore the theoretical and political implications of localizing the development of information and communication technologies.

For the practitioner-oriented case study, addressing the question of scalability of the PD or “participatory customization” outcomes is fundamental, as are the questions of sustainability and power dynamics in design collaborations. In both papers, I hope to incorporate a substantial amount of direct reflection/input from the PCT and other project participants. In the literature I have read thus far, there has been remarkably little representation of the voices of participants.

I would really like to collaborate with others on either or both of these papers, so please let me know if you’re interested. My tentative plan is to finish compiling my lit review notes in December/early January and set a writing timeline at the start of next semester. The goal is to have one paper more or less completed by the end of spring semester and the other one well in the works. Any/all feedback appreciated!

Works Cited

Barab, S., Thomas, M.K., Dodge, T., Goodrich, T., Carteaux, B. and Tuzun, H., 2002. Empowerment design work: Building participant structures that transform. in International Conference of the
Learning Sciences, Seattle, Washington.

Gregory, J. “Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design,” International Journal of Engineering Education
(19:1), Special Issue on Social Dimensions of Engineering Design, C. Dym, and L. Winner (eds.), 2003, pp. 62-74.


2 thoughts on “participatory design

  1. Three articles in IEEE’s “Computer” magazine ( June 2008 ) provide useful perspectives on this, as applied to ICT4D:

    ICT4D 2.0: The Next Phase of Applying ICT for International Development
    pp. 26-33
    Richard Heeks
    The phase change from information and communication technologies for international development (ICT4D) 1.0 to ICT4D 2.0 presents opportunities for informatics professionals and offers new markets for ICT vendors. It also brings new challenges to our established methods of working and emphasizes the need for new expertise and new world views. Where ICT4D 1.0 marginalized the poor, allowing a supply-driven focus, ICT4D 2.0 centralizes them, creating a demand-driven focus. Where ICT4D 1.0 characterized the poor largely as passive consumers, ICT4D 2.0 sees them as active producers and innovators.

    Stages of Design in Technology for Global Development
    pp. 34-41
    Jonathan Donner, Rikin Gandhi, Paul Javid, Indrani Medhi, Aishwarya Ratan, Kentaro Toyama, and Rajesh Veeraraghavan
    In the area of research known as information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), engineers work with social scientists to develop novel solutions to the challenges faced by the world’s poorest communities. In most cases, these challenges can’t be met simply by providing a useful technology—it also requires considerations of local economy, cultural norms, and stakeholder needs. The Technology for Emerging Markets group at Microsoft Research India faces these kinds of problems daily. The solutions, however, rarely come easily and require extensive time in the field, honesty about what does and does not work, and a willingness to accept technically simple solutions.

    Toward Empowered Design
    pp. 42-46
    Gary Marsden
    Pragmatic design requires no radical alterations to the existing digital ecology and has successfully provided many viable solutions. Given the skills limitations within the developing world, however, developers also need a new design focus that views the user as designer.

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