Participatory Design: A Primer

By: Fan Ouyang, on 01 Dec 2017


Participatory Design is a process of investigating, understanding, reflecting upon, establishing, developing, and supporting mutual learning between multiple participants in collective “reflection-in-action” (Bratteteig, Bødker, Dittrich, Mogensen, & Simonsen, 2013).


Designers need to consider the following factors in Participatory Design processes. To illustrate the overall process, here I use our ongoing IdeaMagnets project as an example.

  1. Project goal: To develop a web annotation tool that can foster progressive inquiry in science classes
  2. Principle: The tool design process is carried out closely with teachers so that they can participate in decision-making during the design process. Teachers are invited to contribute to and expand upon current design ideas based on student learning in their classrooms.
  3. Guidelines: A series of monthly Participatory Design workshops are being conducted at the participating high school, so that teachers can collaborate with designers and researchers on the design.
  4. Organizing principles: The design process is organized in a way that allows the teachers and designers to discuss (and negotiate) design solutions. Both parties have shared interests in advancing the current design and achieve a workable design solution. Teachers’ design ideas are documented and then debriefed during the project meetings (participated by the design-research team). The project team work towards integrating teacher ideas and present to the teachers revised designs during the next design workshop for feedback and new ideas.
  5. Iterative cycle: The diagram below demonstrates an iterative cycle of our design process in the project.

Adapted from Bratteteig et al., 2013

Design Process and Lessons Learned

Participatory Design is product-oriented—to develop a tool or a desirable future situation; and process-oriented—as it involves process management, evaluation of the current situations, and plan of the future (Bratteteig et al., 2013).

As an important means to engage stakeholders in participatory design, a participatory design workshop requires designers or researchers to consider several factors before, during, and after the workshops.

  1. Stress the importance of the mutual learning process. In the DiscoW project, teachers, designers, and researchers collectively shape how the activities play out over time. Mutual learning implies that designers and researchers learn about the teaching and learning context from the teachers, also the teachers learn about the technical possibilities from the designers (Bratteteig et al., 2013).
  2. Present and describe the prototype or tool. To nurture fruitful design discussions, researchers could prepare some description of the tool for design participants, e.g., what has been done, how to use this tool, what functions it has, what is going to be done in the future. In our case, we let teachers try out the designed prototype, stressing our desire to revise the tool.
  3. When using the tool, teachers can learn more about the tool, develop concrete understanding about the features of the tool, think about potential use of the tool in authentic learning process, and identify areas that can benefit from further revisions.
  4. During a workshop, let teachers to talk about their experiences with the tool, also let them talk an ideal tool they want. Plan some joint activities (e.g., role playing of teachers and students in learning in different situations/subjects) for teachers and designers to work on. Finally talk about what will be done to move towards the ideal vision of the tool.
  5. After the workshop, designers should keep participants updated about the tool revision process.


In the DiscoW project, Participatory Design outcomes include both the product (i.e., the web annotation tool in this project) and mutual learning among researchers, designers, and teachers.


We are grappling with a few challenges in this project, including:

  • Whether, how, and what to inform teachers about the decision making process?
  • How does the participation in the tool design and development process shape teachers’ pedagogy?
  • As the designed tool continue to mature, how to engage teachers who participate at different time points? What pedagogical understanding a teacher may develop during the design process that may benefit her future integration of this tool? How to scaffold a new-coming teacher later on?


Bratteteig, T., Bødker, K., Dittrich, Y., Mogensen, P. H., & Simonsen, J. (2013). Methods: organizing principles and general guidelines for Participatory Design projects. In J. Simonsen & T. Robertson (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design (pp. 117-144). New York, NY: Routledge.