Participatory design is an excellent strategy to implement in usability research. It considers the users' and stakeholders' participation throughout the design process and can result in great benefits, which contribute to the success of a product.

This article starts by defining what participatory design is and further explains this approach's origins and the advantages (and risks) of implementing one. Curious to find out more?

Table of Contents

What is Participatory Design?
    ➤  What is the origin of Participatory Design?
Should you implement a Participatory Design approach?
    ➤  What are the benefits of Participatory Design?
Participatory design and Empathic Design

What is Participatory Design?

Participatory design is an approach to design products. This approach can be explored in numerous fields, such as software design, urban design, graphic design, and even the health sector (e.g., the Florence project). It is called Participatory Design because it involves the active participation of several people (namely researchers, end-users, designers, partners, citizens, employees, and overall stakeholders) in the design process of a product.

This approach (also considered a strategy) seeks to relocate users along the product design process from the research phase to the technical assessment. It is a strategy to democratize the design to everyone who is part of the process. By integrating various views and perspectives in design projects, designers can tackle valuable and innovative solutions that are genuinely user-centered and can lead to successful outcomes.

What is the origin of Participatory Design?

The Scandinavian tradition of cooperative inquiry was the first to introduce Participatory Design, which was initially called cooperative design. Nowadays, participatory design is also referred to as co-creation or co-design.

In the 1970s, this approach started being explored in projects that considered the adoption of computer applications at workplaces. In sum, the participatory design strategy aimed to understand how workers could benefit from IT innovations that intended to improve the work environment (e.g., Project UTOPIA, by Bødker, Ehn, Kammersgaard, Kyng, and Sundblad, in 1987). These researches, carried out in Scandinavia, realized that the technological development needed to be aligned with the users in order to succeed.

Why Scandinavia?

Short answer: Trade Unions. In the 1970s, the Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions (LO) began collaborating with the Norwegian Employers' Federation (NAF). This collaboration aimed to give workers equal influence power to establish what work is performed and how. It was a political goal and a way to empower workers that turned out to influence other spheres, such as the adoption of computer systems in work environments.

There were three trade union projects; the first one was The Norwegian Iron and Metal Workersâ Union (NJMF), from 1971 to 1973. This project was the first to consider how to empower workers regarding the introduction and development of new technologies. The NJMF project, as well as others that followed (the DEMOS and the DUE), were very focused on ensuring the employees' voices should be heard and their input is valuable. Consequently, this vision proved to positively impact the employees' morale, motivation, and productivity.

All in all, the importance of the users when designing systems was initially considered a political purpose of the trade union projects carried out in Scandinavia. In this case, the users were the workers. Even though the exact term did not yet exist, these were the first steps to what soon would be the participatory design approach.

Scandinavian Approaches to Participatory Design

Should you implement a Participatory Design approach?

Participatory design entails a democratic process for designing products (or systems) that involve users and other stakeholders. The primary argument behind this theory is that users should be able to participate in the design of the products that they will be using, which makes perfect sense. However, it is not that simple, considering that users are usually not experts in usability themselves and that millions of different personalities will probably use the product.

As Hartson and Pylon (2019) mention in The UX Book, since the 70s and 80s, the original participatory design approach has suffered some modifications and may have distinct interpretations. For instance, while some give stakeholders and users full power and responsibility for the final outcome of a product, others consider this strategy a way to generate valuable inputs (from users and stakeholders) for the professional designers to work and further develop. In web design, the second interpretation is the most common one. Thus, participatory design is applied as a strategy to gather relevant inputs from users (and other stakeholders). This information helps UX designers understanding how to design an effortless and enjoyable experience. Therefore, we believe that implementing a participatory design strategy is vital to ensure that the product being created is user-centered.

However, it is important to keep in mind that participatory design is not a strict process and is necessary to implement and adapt it according to the design process that each designer or team follows. The primary definitions of this approach imply that all the stakeholders are involved in the product design process. However, if not well carried out, this can lead to a huge mess and confusion.

At Imaginary Cloud, we have our own Product Design Process, which - depending on the projects' goals and needs - enables the implementation of participatory design methodologies. Usually, our process involves (at least) the product owners, project managers, and sometimes the marketing team. Hence, even though these are not the end-users, we attempt to include stakeholders who have deep knowledge and are more familiar with the target users of a particular product. This procedure allows us to assemble all the information we need throughout each phase of the process. In order to ensure nothing is missing, it is essential to execute additional research about the user and, if possible, perform interviews and observe the users, which we ideally do, depending on the project budget and duration.

Moreover, our process always includes the creation of personas and/or proto-personas. Even though they serve the same purpose, the main difference between these two types of personas lies in the background research and study. Personas are fictional characters that the designers create according to heavy and detailed research on the target audience, considering data gathered from focus groups, interviews, surveys, A&B testing, etc. In comparison, proto-personas are created according to information collected from various stakeholders familiar with the product. Thus, it is not as heavy in terms of research.

What are the benefits of Participatory Design?

There are (at least) three very worth-mentioning benefits of implementing a participatory design strategy in a design process:

1. Innovative solutions
Including new and external people in the design process is a great way to bring new perspectives. In fact, it may even uncover obstacles that were not as obvious for the rest of the team and contribute with fresh ideas that are creative and innovative.

2. Reduce the risk of failure
Having stakeholders and users participating in the design process implies that more people will check each step and uncover possible mistakes throughout each step of the design process. Consequently, the product's outcome is less likely to suffer significant modifications, saving time and costs, and increasing success probability.

3. Engagement
A participatory design provides the opportunity for users and stakeholders to feel that they are part of the design process. Since they are integrated in the process, they have a higher sense of ownership, which increases engagement and likelihood to recommend. In other words, when users and stakeholders feel that they can contribute to the project, they are more likely to be attached to the product and invested in its success.

Participatory design and Empathic Design

Before explaining the difference between participatory design and empathic design, let's begin by understanding how empathy differs from sympathy.

First, sympathy and empathy are both emotional responses. On the one hand, sympathy is when we understand what someone else is feeling. On the other hand, empathy is when we deeply feel what the other person is feeling. Thus, empathy is a stronger emotion than sympathy; it is our ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and see things from their perspectives.

As we explain in one of our previous blog posts, empathy design means that the designers are able to put themselves in the users' shoes. Hence, designers empathize with users by observing, questioning, and engaging with them. This method allows designers to profoundly comprehend how users feel, behave, think, and what they stand for. Consequently, designers become more aware of how users experience a product and discover new solutions that meet users' needs and wants more efficiently.

Should participatory design and empathy design be compared? Not exactly, yet, they often are, and the main difference lies here:

  • Empathic design places designers in the users' world.
  • Participatory design brings users to the designers' world and, more precisely, to each phase of the product design process.

However, one methodology does not replace the other. On the one hand, empathy is always important within the design process; it allows the team to comprehend who the users are and what they need. Being empathetic is always a critical capability that a good UX Design project should have.

On the other hand, participatory design is an approach that the team may choose to implement when designing a product. This strategy is more dependent on the specific project's requirements as well as on the design process that a team follows.


Participatory design is an excellent strategy to meet the end-users and bring them to the design process of a product. It allows the designers and researchers to understand how to address the users' needs and wants while simultaneously providing the space to make sure their ideas are heard and put into practice.

As mentioned, implementing a participatory design approach can lead to innovative solutions, reduce the risk of failure, and increase engagement. However, it is crucial to read and learn more about such methodologies in order to be able to apply them without unnecessary confusion in the design process.

These days there's a great misconception of what design thinking is, and the same applies to participatory design. Just making a meeting where ideas are discussed between people of different departments is not necessarily applying any of the methodologies mentioned above. Therefore, in order to avoid that "confusion," one needs to be truly committed to bringing everyone to the table.

To make the most out of the participatory design and its benefits, designers, developers, project managers, and everyone involved in creating a new product should know how to adapt this strategy to an existing design process. Plus, the team should also define the best way to implement participatory design approaches according to each project's requirements regarding the execution plan, time, and budget.

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