Participatory Design

Participatory design (PD) is an approach to engineering technological systems that seeks to improve them by including future users in the design process. It is motivated primarily by an interest in empowering users, but also by a concern to build systems better suited to user needs. Traditionally, PD has focused on the design of information systems, though the same approach has been applied to other technologies. In order to respect the social contexts in which users work, PD practitioners explicitly consider the practical demands workers must meet in order to do their jobs, as well as the political relationships that exist between workers, their management, and technology designers. As a design sub-discipline, PD directly addresses both technological and ethical issues in the design of systems. Because of this, some people have argued that PD can be used as a model for the “democratization of technology.”


Participatory design has its roots in northern Europe with the combination of two research programs studying the empowerment of workers with respect to technology. It is generally seen as developing from the Scandinavian “collective resources” research program that focused on union empowerment in contract bargaining situations through the education of union officials and members about various production technologies (Bjerknes, Ehn, and Kyng 1987). The other program, “socio-technical systems design,” was pursued primarily by British researchers at the Tavistock Institute and focused on the design of technologies to empower individual workers by enabling and supporting autonomous workgroups (Mumford 1987). Both research programs had in fact grown out of the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project begun in the 1960s, though the British contribution to PD is often overlooked (Emery and Thorsrud 1976).

The “second generation” of the Scandinavian approach was marked by the Swedish-Danish UTOPIA project in 1981, the first recognized PD development project. Conceived in response to the discouraging results of the earlier trade union projects, which had found that existing technologies limited the possibilities of workers to influence workplace organization, UTOPIA targeted technology development as a prospective site for user involvement and influence. In cooperation with the Nordic Graphic Workers Union, the UTOPIA (both an acronym and an ideal) project studied a group of newspaper typographers working without computer support in order to develop a state-of-the-art graphics software product for these skilled graphics workers. The objective was to create a commercial product that the unions could then demand as an alternative to the deskilling technologies available in the market. In doing this, their goals came into alignment with socio-technical systems research. By 1985, the British and Scandinavian traditions had rejoined under a common banner of democratizing technological systems design. The consequence was a new focus on the participation of workers in technological design discussions, and this was to be the essential feature of the PD tradition from that point on (Greenbaum and Kyng 1991).

Politics of Participation

PD has come to be defined by its attempts to involve users in the design of information technologies, and research in the field has examined the various challenges that these attempts have faced. Depending on the different features of the various workplaces that have been engaged, problems of communication, workplace politics, and design politics have received the most attention. The differences in work contexts range across unionized and non-unionized workplaces, democratic and non-democratic countries, small and large organizations, public and private institutions, commercial and non-profit organizations, volunteer and paid workers, and various configurations of labor and management. The design projects also differ in the extent to which they try to use existing or off-the-shelf technologies, as opposed to custom tailored systems. Finally, the roles and responsibilities of design engineers and workers in the process of systems design can vary widely, thus influencing the politics of design.

The principle method used by PD to involve users in design is to have them participate in meetings with design engineers. It is this simple idea that makes this approach “participatory.” Participation in this sense is usually taken to mean participation in discussions about a technology, as opposed to actual participation in the construction of a system as engineers or builders. While this might seem simple, it turns out that there are various sorts of problems that arise in these meetings, due mainly to problems of communication between people of differing knowledge and perspectives.

Simply allowing users to sit-in on design meetings is insufficient to achieve participation because the politics of both the workplace and the design process can intervene. Sometimes managers are considered to be part of the user group, even though only the workers below them will ever deal directly with the technology in question. The politics of the workplace can then impinge on the process to the extent that managers may resist the participation of low-level workers, or intimidate them in the meetings, or act to discount their authority, skill, and knowledge. Even when managers are not present, the users themselves may not be fully aware of how best to articulate their knowledge of the workplace or what they need and desire from the new technology, or they may underestimate the value of their own skills and knowledge. The politics of the design process often gives engineers, with their expert knowledge, much greater authority in making design decisions. As such, it can be difficult for users to express themselves and not simply defer to the authority of these expert designers. All of these political forces tend to silence the voice of users in the design meetings, and a serious effort must be made to counteract these tendencies.

Design engineers can also find it difficult to communicate effectively with users. Engineers tend to express themselves in technical language, and usually discuss design ideas in terms of nuts-and-bolts internal operations, rather than how a technology relates directly to a user. As such, it can be a daunting task for an engineer to describe design alternatives in a way that users are able understand and respond to them with informed opinions. As a result of these problems, a great deal of energy is expended in PD to create visualizations and mock-ups of proposed systems so that users can evaluate them. It is also common to send designers to the workplace to observe users, or even train them to do the work of the users of a proposed system.

Gender poses an additional set of problems to effective participation in design. In many work contexts, the positions traditionally occupied by women are often viewed as being of lower value by management and unions. This undervaluing of women’s work easily overflows into inequalities of participation in design activities, especially when combined with social prejudices that view technological design as a masculine pursuit.  Unless gender issues in the design process are recognized and dealt with, there exists a strong possibility of gender inequalities being built into the technology itself (Green, Owen, and Pain 1993). Even though PD shares many of its organizational ideals and goals with feminist philosophies and organizations, researchers have found special challenges to utilizing PD in feminist organizations. Ellen Balka (1997) reports that decentralized organizational structures, high dependence on volunteer and transient workers, lack of adequate funding and resources, and lack of technological training pose particular problems for implementing PD in feminist organizations.

Ultimately, PD does not consist of a set of strict rules or methods for how to go about designing systems. Instead, PD prescribes an attitude of including users, encouraging their thoughtful participation, and being sensitive to the political and ethical challenges facing designers. Specifically, it encourages designs that empower users, respects and encourages their skills and job satisfaction, and protects their individual autonomy as much as possible given their jobs and work environment. It also provides case studies and techniques that have worked to varying degrees in various specific design projects as a resource to draw upon in future design projects. Several conferences and journals have brought together the results of many such projects (Bloomberg and Kensing 1998). For more on the politics of representing work, see Liam Bannon’s 1995 article “The Politics of Design.”

Democratizing Technology

Some authors, such as Langdon Winner (1995), have proposed that PD stands as an example of a new kind of technological citizenship. Under the current forms of citizenship, there is very little room for individual voices to shape the design of the technologies that permeate society. Private companies driven primarily by commercial interests produce most of these technologies. PD does not offer universal participation, or democratic control over all technologies, but it is argued to be a step in the right direction by allowing some non-commercial values to influence some technologies.

It is crucial to note that arguments such as Winner’s hold out a procedural notion of justice as the political ideal. It is the very participation of people in design that is democratic, just as the right of all citizens to vote makes a government democratic. Thus, democratizing technological systems raises many of the same problems facing democratic governmental systems. Just as the people in a democracy are free to elect a tyrant and the majority might use the system to exploit and repress minority groups. It is not clear that universal participation actually leads to a society or technology that is free or empowering. What PD can do is bring designers, users, and the technology itself into a process through which the technology can develop in useful ways.

A more detailed history of PD, its connections to broader social movements such as the quality of working life movement and Total Quality Management, and a consideration of the ethical and political issues it raises can be found in Peter Asaro’s 2000 article, “Transforming Society by Transforming Technology.”

Peter M. Asaro, Departments of Philosophy and Computer Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Cross References

Design Ethics


Agre, Philip. (1995). “From High Tech to Human Tech: Empowerment, Measurement, and Social Studies of Computing.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work 3(2): 162<en>195.

Asaro, Peter M. (2000). “Transforming Society by Transforming Technology: The Science and Politics of Participatory Design.” Accounting, Management and Information Technologies, Special Issue on Critical Studies of Information Practice, 10: 257-290.

Green, E. , J. Owen and D. Pain (Eds.) (1993). Gendered by design? Information Technology and Office Systems. London: Taylor & Francis.

Balka, Ellen. (1997). Participatory Design in Women's Organizations: The Social World of Organizational Structure and Gendered Nature of Expertise. Gender, Work and Organizations, 4: 2, 99-115.

Bannon, Liam. (1995). “The Politics of Design: Representing Work.” Communications of the ACM 38(9): 66-68.

Bjerknes, Gro; Pelle Ehn; and Morten Kyng (Eds.). (1987). Computers and Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge. Brookfield, VT: Avebury.

Bloomberg, J., and F. Kensing. (1998). “Special Issue on Participatory Design.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work: The Journal of Collaborative Computing, 7: 3-4.

Ehn, P., and M. Kyng. (1987). “The Collective Resource Approach to Systems Design.” In Computers and Democracy, ed. G. Bjerknes, P. Ehn, and M. Kyng. Brookfield, VT: Avebury.

Emery, Fred, and Einar Thorsrud. (1976). Democracy at Work: The Report of the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Program. Leiden, Norway: Martinus Nijhoff.

Feenberg, Andrew. (1991). Critical Theory of Technology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Greenbaum, J., and M. Kyng (Eds.). (1991). Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Holtzblatt, K., and H. R. Beyer (Eds.). (1995). “Special Issue on Requirements Gathering: The Human Factor.” Communications of the ACM 38(5).

Mumford, E. (1987). “Sociotechnical Systems Design: Evolving Theory and Practice.” In Computers and Democracy, ed. G. Bjerknes, P. Ehn, and M. Kyng. Brookfield, VT: Avebury.

Mumford, Enid, and Don Henshall. (1979). A Participative Approach to Computer Systems Design. New York: Wiley.

Suchman, Lucy. (1995). “Making Work Visible.” Communications of the ACM 38(9): 56-64.

Schuler, Douglas, and Aki Namioka (1993). Participatory Design: Principles and Practices. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Winner, L. (1995). “Citizen Virtues in a Technological Order.” In Technology and the Politics of Knowledge, ed. Andrew Feenberg and Alistair Hannay. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.