Posts tagged “participatory design”

Reading Ahead: Participatory Design

Reading ahead logo with space above

Tracy and her younger son thinking about possibilities for books and reading devices

Our fieldwork sessions often include a piece in which we ask participants to brainstorm and fantasize about the future.

In an earlier post, we talked about the simple models we were building for the Reading Ahead interviews.

Book and device models for participatory design activity

We wanted to put something in people’s hands to help them show us what the “book of the future” and “reading device of the future” could be and do. (This fieldwork approach borrows from participatory design.)

We’ve had clients come out in the field with us and say after an interview, “That person didn’t give us any ideas,” so it’s important to clarify that we don’t expect this kind of activity to directly produce marketable ideas. Rather, it gives people another mode for expressing themselves, and it’s great for helping them communicate things which may not always be easy to verbalize, like:

  • Their desires
  • What they think should exist
  • What problems they are trying to solve
  • What seems acceptable and what seems outlandish to them
  • Preferences and in what ways they would like something to be different

Chris uses the device model to help express his thoughts about navigation

Often for us, the very act of making the props for an activity suggests new ways of using them. In this case, while making a blank cover for the “future book” model, we realized that we could also make a blank inner page spread.

Holding the “book of the future” model

As it turned out, this meant that when we were done with the sessions, people had created very nice book models for us, with a cover and inner spread.

Erica’s “telescoping shopping bag” book with digital annotations, hyperlinks, and built-in dictionary

Part of the preparation for each interview session was to get the models ready with new blank paper. Here I am on the trunk of my car, prepping the models before an interview in San Francisco.


Now that the fieldwork is done, we have a great collection of models made by the people we interviewed.

Artifacts from participants’ “future book” ideation


The last section (copied below) of our Topline Summary synthesizes some of what we gleaned from this part of the fieldwork. These are just quick hits; we’ll develop any themes and recommendations that come out of these activities much further in the analysis and synthesis phase of the project.

Excerpt from Topline Summary: Participant ideation about the “book of the future” and “reading device of the future”

NOTE: The first thing a number of the participants said when asked about what the “book of the future” could be and do was that it’s pretty hard to improve on the book-it works very well the way it is. In addition to all the qualities already mentioned, books are

  • Instant on-off

  • Durable
  • But people did have ideas. Here are some of them:

  • Interactive
  • Put yourself in the story
  • Leave the story for more information
  • Choose from alternate endings, versions
  • Size-shifting
  • Able to morph from bigger size for reading to smaller for transporting
  • Retain the book form while adding functionality
  • Book form with replaceable content: a merging of book and device, with a cover, and page-turning but content is not fixed-it can be many different books
  • Books that contain hyperlinks, electronic annotations, multimedia, etc.
  • Privacy
  • Hide what you’re reading from others, hide annotations, hide your personal book list and lend your device to someone (with content for them)
  • Projecting
  • A device that projects words that float above it, so that the reader doesn’t have to hold the device in their hands
  • Reading Ahead: First day of fieldwork

    Reading ahead logo with space above

    Here’s what my day looks like today–3 interview sessions starting this morning in Soquel, then up to San Francisco, and then over to Vallejo where I’ll finish up around 9 pm.


    I’ve tried to schedule everything so I’ll have time in between each interview to write notes. It’s amazing how hectic what seems like an ample schedule often becomes once you factor in traffic, parking, eating, checking email, and the general miscellany of a day.

    I got everything ready last night: video camera, still camera, release forms, models and materials for participatory design activities at the end of the interview session.


    I went over the interview guide, and am feeling really good about it. I always get kind of charged up when I run the interview through in my mind the night before fieldwork starts. There’s this unique feeling that comes from knowing that I’m about to go out and find out things from people that, sitting at my desk the night before I go, I can’t even imagine.

    Building on what isn’t there

    Sketch for curved shelf ©2007 Dan Soltzberg

    There’s a testament to the power of openness as a spur to creative participation nestled in Scott Brown’s piece on early fan fiction in this month’s Wired.

    Brown writes about the works Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more avid readers created around his Sherlock Holmes novels, and how what were really continuity errors provided these folks with points of entry:

    Sir Arthur, God bless him, didn’t write with an eye to what today’s nerd would call “continuity.” Crafting Holmes stories bored him, and he frequently lost track of details like the exact location of Watson’s Afghan war wound (was it the shoulder or the leg?) and the precise status of Mrs. Watson. But Sir Arthur’s table scraps, his inconsistencies and random allusions, made for a fan feast. From a throwaway line-a hilariously oblique reference such as “the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”-scores of amateur yarns have been spun.

    Conan Doyle’s omissions and errors left space for others to contribute. Less-than-fully-speced inputs–raw sketches, concept directions, overarching themes–can often leave more space for creative participation than a finely honed departure point.

    Of course it depends on where in a development process one is and what the objectives are. (Sing, “a time to diverge, a time to converge” to the tune of The Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn”).

    In semi-related news, San Francisco IxDA will be exploring the use of prototypes at their May 26th event.

    Related Posts:
    Giving Away Time, and Moving with a Magic Thing (Quickies)
    Human Behavior
    Trying to find out things we didn’t even know to ask about

    Teasing apart meaning

    Economists are talking about repugnance, a crucial, complex, and culturally varied driver of what people will and won’t do, comfortably.

    And last week a woman in Ohio whose ad to sell a horse mistakenly appeared under the heading “Good Things to Eat” in a newspaper’s classified section received dozens of calls, some expressing outrage and others from people interested in turning it into dinner. (In Europe and Japan horse meat on a menu would stir no more comment than macaroni and cheese would in an American diner.)

    “It’s very hard to predict what’s repugnant and what’s not,” Mr. Roth said. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, agreed. He conducted a two-year study to try to get at why people consider athletes who take steroids to be cheating, but not those who take vitamins or use personal trainers. He and his team offered different possibilities: What if steroids were completely natural? Or were not at all harmful? Or were only effective if the athlete had to work harder than before?

    The only change that caused the interviewed subjects to alter their objections to steroids was when they were told that everyone else thought it was all right. “People have moral intuitions,” Mr. Bloom said. When it comes to accepting or changing the status quo in these situations, he said, they tended to “defer to experts or the community.”

    Often introducing money into the exchange – putting it into the marketplace – is what people find repugnant. Mr. Bloom asserted that money is a relatively new invention in human existence and therefore “unnatural.”

    We’ve written before about how people naturally slip from one idea to the next; our structures for organizing information are not like an Excel spreadsheet. This necessitates a triangulation approach to trying to get at what somebody’s mental models might really be and move beyond monolithic statements like “Steroids are bad!” The example of pulling apart the possible objections to steroids (fairness? composition? safety?) is right on. We might also take the reverse approach and frame it as a participatory-design thought-exercise: “You’re the executive of a pharmaceutical company and you want to find a way to make steroids acceptable to the general public. What could you do?” By looking at what people might change, we can reveal (sometimes more easily) what is stopping them from adopting something now. These barriers are crucial design opportunities that producers must understand and address.

    New Yorker profiles Roald Dahl

    From a lengthy New Yorker profile of Roald Dahl comes this story of a formative exposure to the notion that the products we experience are the result of conscious deliberate decisions by others, and that this is a process one can engage in.

    He and the other boys at Repton also enjoyed a curious perk, courtesy of the Cadbury chocolate company. “Every now and again, a plain grey cardboard box was dished out to each boy in our House,” Dahl writes in Boy. Inside were eleven chocolate bars, aspirants to the Cadbury line. Dahl and the other boys got to rate the candy, and they took their task very seriously. (“Too subtle for the common palate” was one of Dahl’s assessments.) He later recalled this as the first time that he thought of chocolate bars as something concocted, the product of a laboratory setting, and the thought stayed with him until he invented his own crazy factory.

    Dahl is brilliant at evoking the childhood obsession with candy, which most adults can recall only vaguely. In his books, candy is often a springboard for long riffs on imagined powers and possibilities. Far from being the crude ode to instant gratification that critics like Cameron detect, Dahl’s evocation of candy is an impetus to wonder. When Billy, the boy in The Giraffe, the Pelly, and Me (1985), opens his own candy shop–talk about wish fulfillment!–he orders confections from all over the world. “I can remember especially the Giant Wangdoodles from Australia, every one with a huge ripe red strawberry hidden inside its crispy chocolate crust,” he says. “And The Electric Fizzcocklers that made every hair on your head stand straight up on end. . . . There was a whole lot of splendid stuff from the great Wonka factory itself, for example the famous Willy Wonka Rainbow Drops–suck them and you can spit in seven different colours. And his stickjaw for talkative parents.” The word “confection” has a double meaning in Dahl’s world: candy is a source not only of sweetness but of creativity. On a field trip recently, I sat next to three nine-year-old boys who spent forty-five minutes in a Wonka-inspired reverie, inventing their own candies.

    FreshMeat #21: The More The Merrier

    FreshMeat #21 from Steve Portigal

                   (oo) Fresh
                    \\/  Meat

    People, put your hands together now for FreshMeat!
    There’s a party in my mind and everyone’s invited
    At the dawn of the eighties, I looked towards my imminent
    ritual transition to manhood – my Bar Mitzvah. My
    preparations began with the acquisition of a portable
    tape recorder (used for listening and practicing the
    Torah portion I would eventually chant). My friends and I
    immediately put this device to use, creating fake radio
    programs, with interviews, songs, commercials, and
    closing credits. The post-modern media parodies of
    National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live were well-
    established at that point, but not to a 13-year-old. To
    us, presented with a new enabling technology, pretending
    to be on the radio seemed the natural thing to do.

    These new technologies continue to appear. Within recent
    memory, some products that put previously unachievable
    professional-grade abilities in the hands of ordinary
    people include video cameras, desktop publishing, teeth
    whitening, home theater, hairstyling products, and home
    dry-cleaning. Further, consider some of the brands that
    offer “professional” as part of their promise: Hummer,
    Jeep, Viking, Thermador, SubZero, Bosch, Nikon, and Smart
    and Final.

    In our culture there is a growing interest in trying to
    be like the professionals. As consumers, we’re interested
    in how business is done. The popular press reports the
    amount of money that a new movie makes in its opening
    weekend. Advertisements (most recently Dell) profile the
    product designers, user researchers, usability testers,
    and others who are behind the scenes for the products we
    buy. Many of the ubiquitous reality-TV shows are simply
    pulling back the veil on a previously hidden process
    (MTV’s Cribs documents the homes of the famous, Take This
    Job- tracks the work activities of people with unique
    occupations, Airline shows the minutiae of getting
    passengers boarded for an on-time departure, and Family
    Plots tells all about a family-owned funeral home). The
    boundaries between consumer and producer continue to
    blur, a change that was massively accelerated by the
    Internet. For more about this, check out The Cluetrain
    . Customers (really, fans) of companies form
    communities to debate how those companies and their
    products should evolve. For example, Google’s social
    networking site Orkut includes two communities with over
    1000 subscribers: What Should Google Do? and What Should
    Orkut Do?

    But beyond simply acting upon that sense of ownership by
    talking about the companies, many people are taking
    advantage of new enabling technology (i.e., Photoshop) to
    go one step further – to create new “products.” And, with
    a distribution channel like the Internet, they can also
    share their creation with an enormous audience, just like
    the professionals.

    Fan-created fiction (or “Fanfic”) is artifact of fandom
    in general, but the quantity and breadth of Internet
    sources further demonstrates the extent of consumers
    acting, literally, like producers. The “Lois and Clark”
    Fanfic archive
    has over 2300 stories and is updated
    regularly. There are other fanfic sites devoted to NYPD
    Blue, Law and Order SVU, Felicity, anime characters such
    as Sailor Moon, and video games including Max Payne and
    Zork. As well as many, many Star Trek sites.

    Similarly, DVD Tracks is a site that was set up to host
    alternative commentary tracks for DVDs, recorded as MP3
    files by ordinary viewers.

    For products, specifically, one of the most popular
    formats for consumer-developed concepts is the parody. runs a regular forum where
    participants create realistic, disturbing, obscene,
    bombastic and hilarious product concepts, ads, book
    covers, movie posters, and more. Check out this for
    fictitious recalled food products like Nestle Boogers, or
    this for fake religious toys such as Biblical MadLibs and
    Erotic Dreidels.

    Some people might look at those pages and groan, grimace
    and think “Hardy-har, I’ve seen stuff just like that on
    comedy TV shows.” That’s exactly the point! Now, ordinary
    folks can create parodies of real products and services
    as well as commercial media. Ironically (or
    frustratingly, if you can’t handle too much recursion)
    this trend was beautifully pegged in a Saturday Night
    Live parody ad for computer they called McIntosh Jr.
    Using the tagline “The Power to Crush the Other Kids” one
    young boy earns the envy of his classmates by printing
    out a fake brochure for the “pubic library.” See the ad

    Beyond straight-up parodies, we can find people crafting
    conceptual visions of the future. Look at this to see
    wireless coffee delivery and payphones converted to
    clean air dispensers, among other imaginings.

    But what probably hits closest to home for many of us are
    the proposed design evolutions of real products, created
    by regular people. A beautiful iPod watch is here. You
    can see 150 other iPod concepts – new form factors, new
    finishes, skins, features, and more here.

    These people obviously have real passion and enthusiasm
    for the iPod. We also find a similar energy with an
    eagerly anticipated product update, such as the Nintendo
    DS. When the public has no idea what their future object
    of desire will look like, fake images begin circulating
    to feed that hunger., an excellent site for
    information about the latest technology products, has
    been soliciting concepts for the Nintendo DS (see some
    examples here) as part of their campaign to obtain an
    actual pre-release image of the product. They are even
    offering a bounty (get the details here) for whoever can
    provide this image.

    A further variation is the how-to information created by
    enthusiasts who not only share the result of their
    project, but also publish detailed instructions for
    others who may want to duplicate their example. They are
    publishing their own designs, and the means for others to
    complete that same design. Want to build a lit cityscape
    for your kitchen window? See how Ryan Hoagland did it
    . Mike Harrison tells you how to build a Nixie Tube
    clock here. Physically modifying a PC (or “casemodding”)
    has produced a entire subculture of DIY hardware
    designers who no doubt are influencing manufacturers like
    Alienware. See the process of building a casemod that
    looks like an anime girl here, or visit to
    see ultra-custom designs like a toaster, an Underwood
    typerwriter, a V8 engine and others that evoke futuristic
    technogeek wet dreams. The turn-your-Mac-Classic-into-an-
    aquarium meme became so widespread that there is an
    entire collection of Mac-based aquariums here.

    Product designers may have a negative knee-jerk reaction
    to all this. Who do these people think they are? Up to
    this point, the limited availability of glorious tools
    (and training needed to use them) placed this type of
    speculative conceptual activity out of the reach of the
    masses. Now the technology, if not the ability, is within
    reach of millions. But for designers this is really a
    “the-more-the-merrier” situation. These new enabling
    technologies (i.e., PhotoShop and its brethren) further
    the discourse about what is possible, and what is desired
    – and that discourse is an essential ingredient in the
    work we do for non-fake clients.

    For example, consider how user research methods such as
    participatory design (also known as PD) explicitly
    harness this desire. PD asks regular people to help
    design future products. The designers work directly with
    users to identify needs, rapidly prototype solutions, and
    iterate those solutions on-the-fly. Although some may
    fear that bringing non-designers into the actual pencil-
    and-paper moments of design may reduce the design to a
    mere sketchmonkey, PD is not consumer-led design. The
    designer takes the lead, informed by what the users know
    best – the problems they have today with existing
    products (of a lack of product). People will offer
    alternatives to ideas suggested by designers, but the
    biggest value for the designer is in understanding the
    needs behind that input (i.e., it’s not clear that people
    are ready for an emergency fresh air dispenser as
    suggested above, but we can see the connection between
    that concept and existing products such as the USB-based
    personal ionizers that are sold online).

    When someone says, “I want a handle,” that shouldn’t be
    taken literally. The need being expressed is, “I need an
    easy way to carry this device into another room.” The
    designer is not simply implementing a wish-list but is
    actively translating and transforming. That is what they
    do best: act as a magic engine that takes in needs and
    spits out wants – in a way that solves the need. No one
    really “needs” an iPod watch, but they may “want” one.
    Some people want one badly enough to create a picture of
    what it would be like!

    Participatory design is a significant shift in how we
    approach user research – instead of focusing on the
    problem we are now working with users to develop the
    solutions. Of course, in the process of creating
    products, needs, wants, and solutions are often just
    proxies for each other as we struggle to articulate half-
    baked ideas. But half-baked ideas are artifacts of the
    creative process. It’s exciting that these regular people
    are already creating partially cooked concepts on their
    own, without a client, without a PD session, without a
    designer, or a facilitator. For the designer who seeks to
    center their solutions in the world of the user, rest
    assured that the users are already headed out to meet you

    If we ever wanted proof that such a thing is possible,
    that everyone really is a designer, we need look no
    further than these impassioned expressions of desire to
    be involved with products we love.

    A similar version of this article appears on the Core77
    Industrial Design Supersite
    . Check it out, with pictures
    and everything, here.


    About Steve