We are constantly designed by our own designing

The concept of Participatory Design (PD) originated from Scandinavian work. The purpose of the PD was to empower workers by entrusting them with political power in their work to determine the scope and shape of the new technology that had been introduced in the workplace. However, as workers in the labour union do not have an in-depth knowledge of computer technologies, they have to accept the solutions proposed by the management, leading to many workers losing their jobs [2].

Ehn and Kyng stated that the workers (participants) don’t understand the nuances of designing computer technology, which puts themselves in a disempowered situation, in which they have to either accept or reject it [2]. To address these political and ethical problems, Ehn and Kyng proposed a method that lets workers and software developers collaboratively design and develop those technologies, so that the workers can assume control over their participation [2]. The PD is not about putting users into a “techno-slavery” false model, but about protecting them and gathering ideas for designing a better system [2].

The democratic nature of PD can empower the end users and motivate them to take part in a long-term project. The Field researchers have been inspired to adopt PD in their study, such as in social science. The research by Light and Akama indicates how it can be utilized to structure future social relations through people’s interdependence. By involving many different stakeholders, new concepts of their roles and relations would emerge during the process of exploration of the future-scenario applications and directions. The participants are experts in their life experience, social relationship constructing and technology ethics [1].

The author further noted three points that can be embedded in the social relationship construction process as follows:

  1. The ethics of design should be integrated into the intervention [1].
  2. Transformation towards a collective well-being can only happen if it’s driven by the people’s willingness to develop new roles and practice, such as living change process [1].
  3. The feminist care concept can be utilized in the PD work. It is obliged in our life to be liveable and situated intrinsically inside interdependence [1].

The author also provided three examples of how the politics of care and PD can be used in structuring the future social relationships. The first case is the creation of an environment (etc. in small independent café) that feels like “at home” to keep people “aging in place” and encouraging them to exchange their views about the questions raised by the researchers [1]. The collected data can be used for the researcher and council who would work on the future services to improve the older people’s services. The second case is to cultivate the neighbourhood community learning. For example, one of the local Australian fire authorities organized a community-learning workshop to allow the local residents to share their fire survival experience [1]. Such workshop-based dialogues have built up a strong resilience in the local community. The outcome is that the community became less dependent upon the fire authority to tell people what they should do. Instead, the neighbours formed new relations by getting to know each other, which changed the top-down relations from authority-to-resident to a resident-to-resident co-created engagement. The third case demonstrated the way in which the ethics of care works along with action design research. The participants co-created the activities with space instead of participating in the pre-shaped one offered by the workshop, which enabled people to become the designer of their interventions [1].

The conclusion can be found in the PD-based innovation project. Researchers should work with the other entities (authority, activist, council, etc.) to organise people together and bridge the gap among people across social barriers in their neighbourhoods. In this paper, there is no such tactical methodology proposed as a reference guide of social relation-based PD, but rather a recommendation to bring people together and create a space for them to reflect, try and learn the participants’ perspective and observe the requirements from any newly formed relations.

Being a digital civics student provided me with the ideas to re-think the community-based design. When we work with the other activists, we should give all participants the insight not only how to learn from each other but also how to design a similar learning for others. In the social relations design, the feminist politics of care principle can build up a long-lasting cooperation among the participants, so We are constantly designed by our own designing. It, however, raised questions for me regarding PD. Does it work in all kinds of scenarios? Do we need to involve participants in all the design stages? Well, I think the PD has its limitations. For example, if we design technology-driven solutions to satisfy a certain community’s requirements, the PD should be scoped to UX and UI design, but not to the extent of the background technology work . The participants might not understand the technological complexities and challenges behind the solution(such as programming). From the technology design perspective, the benefit of using the politics of care in PD is enabling the understanding of the ethical issues and challenges from the participant view rather the designer’s guess. For example, participants can show their concerns regarding data privacy and security. Such participatory design can certainly motivate participants, activists and researchers to build up long last co-design relations.


[1]          LIGHT, A. and AKAMA, Y., 2014. Structuring future social relations: the politics of care in participatory practice. In Proceedings of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers-Volume 1 ACM, 151-160.

[2]          SPINUZZI, C., 2005. The methodology of participatory design. Technical communication 52, 2, 163-174.

Picture source: https://architects2zebras.com/tag/participatory-design/

Author: Bing Zhai

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