How Participatory Design Can Create A Better User Experience

Participatory design focuses on the user experience from the get-go. It uses real-time input and feedback from participating users to determine the customers needs, saving your company both time and money. Participatory design is not crowd-sourced design, but something more powerful. It builds off the natural intuition and flow of real users to enable designers and developers to steer the software towards the needs of the customer. By switching the emphasis from features to usability, the whole user-experience can be instantly and vastly improved during the crucial early stages of development and design.

It seems obvious to suggest that software needs to be designed with the user in mind, but it is so easy to get caught up in the features and functionality of our beloved projects that we often forget that real people, probably without so much love for technology, are our target market.

Why Use Participatory Design?

Using participatory design means putting the needs of your customers first and thinking about them through every step of the process. You are not designing software for yourself, so it shouldn’t be developed and designed with your own needs in mind. In fact, you probably don’t know what your real users need until they show you.
When you think of real-life examples around the world, it is easy to see how a lack of thought on the part of the user can result in bad experiences. Shopping malls without escalators, or ramps for wheelchairs, restaurants with uncomfortable metal chairs or long-distance buses without toilets are just a few examples of common mistakes that could have been avoided with some simple forethought for the final user. These types of avoidable shortfalls are all too common in the real world, and have frequently made their way into the online world too.

Understanding Your Users Needs

The best way to determine what your users need, what their problems are and how you can provide them with something to solve those problems, is to ask them questions; lots of questions. Let them talk but don’t interrupt them. Let them sketch but don’t guide them. Let them suggest but don’t encourage them.
It is important that they feel comfortable, in a natural ‘setting’ and can feel open to communicate their needs with you. This is where participatory design finds its strengths. It allows designers and developers to observe users in a natural environment, but with the added benefit of gaining real-time feedback by creating an open dialogue. Designers and developers are often amazed at the results of these sessions, seeing their software being used in ways they had never even imagined previously.
Not everything is handed over to the opinion of the participants however. They are simply used as a guide to gauge what your project may be missing or what you might need to remove. As Steve Jobs famously once said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” However, they do know what they need. Let the users show you what they need, and then you can then show them what they want. This process allows for a nice balance of creativity and control, without sacrificing on the user-experience.

Find Your Audience

Creating ‘personas’ is a popular way of putting the creators in the place of the customer and has been a process used for a while now in designing software. However, ‘personas’ have their weaknesses. Characteristics of these ‘personas’ are often adapted to suit the direction of the project, with the developer or designers best interest in mind. They are often vague and allow for oversights in the design. With real users, their needs will not change. They will remain certain of what they want and will consistently communicate their ideas to you. Real people help you to target your primary audience and, perhaps more importantly, those who you do not want to target. This helps to define and refine your project, continually improving the user-experience.

Participatory design allows participants to draw, write and talk about their ideas and needs. Listen to their feedback and identify consistencies, patterns and irregularities in their criticism. The most important thing is to find a way of documenting the results. This feedback will become crucial during later design sessions, so it is important to be able to refer back to earlier research. Resist the temptation to alter their words or drawings to suit your own feature requests. Make sure you provide lots of paper for drawing, so participants can make revisions (without your influence) on different pieces of paper, thereby creating a de-facto ‘version control’.

After you analyze the results from a few people, you will begin to see patterns emerge. It is important to analyze these patterns and gather the data. This is your audience telling you something, so you need to listen. This crucial insight into how people are thinking about and using your software is a gold mine of valuable information for designing your product.

Participatory design should be embraced as an extremely useful and beneficial tool to help you design software. If you can effectively make use of the method, you will immediately reap the benefits of better, more user-friendly software for everyone.

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