What is participatory design? Learn how to conduct it

What is participatory design? Learn how to conduct it

Reading Time: 9 minutes
What is Participatory Design?

In design circles, user-centricity has become fashionable. However, let us face it: being truly user-focused involves more than just having a design team discuss it in a well-lit studio. Collaboration and direct user involvement are involved. This is where the democratic and transformative process of participatory design is applied. This article will define participatory design and review its foundations, methods, and processes.

What is participatory design?

Participatory design is a practice that involves real-world users alongside professional designers. It is founded on the premise that the people who will ultimately interact with the product or system possess invaluable insights and experiences that can significantly inform and improve the design. 

Participatory design seeks to break down the traditional barriers between designers and users, fostering a collaborative environment where stakeholders collaborate to ideate, prototype, and refine solutions.

This approach is particularly practical in contexts where user experience and usability are paramount, as it leverages the unique perspectives and lived experiences of the users to drive innovation and relevance. By embedding users within the design process, participatory design enhances the likelihood of achieving higher levels of user satisfaction, acceptance, and engagement with the outcome.

Other names for participative design include:

  1. Cooperative design
  2. Community design
  3. Co-design
  4. Co-creation

The concept remains the same regardless of the terminology: Users and stakeholders are involved in the design process.

Participatory design is not a new notion. It started in Germany and gained popularity in Scandinavia throughout the 1980s. It expanded to other locations, including North America.

This technique is used by large industrial players, including:

  1. Microsoft utilized participatory design to create the interface for the Office suite.
  2. IKEA employed participatory design to create goods and shop layouts.
  3. Airbnb uses participatory design to improve the website navigation and UX.

Participatory design and UX

Participatory Design and UX

Participatory design is a logical complement to UX design since it actively seeks and incorporates user feedback throughout the design process. UX design is typically user-focused or human-centered. Designers will learn about the problems users are experiencing and how they affect them early in development. 

UX designers can leverage insights about user demands, choices, and behaviors to inform design decisions and contribute to creating more user-friendly and effective goods, services, or systems. 

In contrast, the participatory approach engages consumers in the design process. End-users are frequently present during brainstorming meetings and provide design feedback at all stages. It democratizes decision-making for those who will be most affected by the solutions.

The trade-off is that it involves significant time and effort from your participants. Thus, this strategy is typically most effective with groups already passionate and informed or specialists in the subject in which you work.

Principles of participatory design

Principles of Participatory Design

1. Inclusion

Include a varied group of participants impacted by or engaged with the product, system, or problem that must be solved. This group includes end users, designers, developers, domain specialists, and other stakeholders.

2. Collaboration

Engage in collaborative activities where individuals can share their expertise, insights, and ideas. This cooperation can take many forms, including workshops, interviews, brainstorming sessions, and co-design exercises.

3. Empowerment

The participatory approach is about empowerment. It empowers users and stakeholders to actively participate in design decisions. Their ideas and suggestions are acknowledged and included in the design process, giving them equal ownership and control as designers.

4. Iteration

Participatory design is an iterative process. Participants examine prototypes, provide feedback, and suggest changes. This iterative method ensures that the final design successfully addresses consumer needs, making them an integral part of the continuous improvement process.

5. Contextual Understanding

Listen to the participants to understand how the final product or system will be used. Learn about cultural, social, and environmental issues to develop solutions that are unique to their specific setting.

6. User Advocacy

A participatory approach is about user advocacy. It allows consumers to advocate for themselves during the design process. Addressing power imbalances and making design decisions emphasizing users’ interests and aspirations creates an egalitarian and safe environment for cooperation and co-design, making users feel heard and understood.

Participatory design methods

Each organization can develop distinct participatory design methods to meet its objectives. However, the majority utilizes one of three popular design methods:

Methods of Participatory Design

1. User-centered design

User-centered design is an iterative methodology that prioritizes the user’s needs at every stage of the design process.

Users can contribute to the design process by contributing feedback, opinions, and criticism after each iteration.

Participating users can make critical design decisions, such as product features and how they work. 

Designers and developers started gathering customer feedback early in the participatory design methods. They evaluate the remark and apply it as needed.

2. Co-design

Co-design grants all participants equal rights in the design process. 

Users collaborate with a team of designers to develop a product that meets their demands. The team encourages and executes the user’s ideas.

While users, partners, and other stakeholders can contribute to the design and “own” the product, the designer makes the final decisions. 

When designers rely on user feedback and suggestions, they should design accordingly.

In co-design, the user begins working early on the project and offers light feedback until the development phase is completed.

3. User-created design

User-created or user-generated design consists of four separate stages in the design process:

  1. Collect feedback to understand better the context of using the product. 
  2. Specify user requirements for your design and development teams based on feedback.
  3. Design against these requirements.
  4. Evaluate the final design against the specifications.

This is a means to determine precisely what the user expects from the product. 

Once a design is completed, expert designers can make revisions based on the project parameters.

Participatory design process

Step 1: Begin with research goals

The foundation of any participatory design process starts with clear and concise research goals. Establishing these goals ensures that the design team and participants are aligned. This step involves:

Identifying primary objectives: 

Define what you want to accomplish with the participatory design process. Are you looking to improve an existing product, design a new one, or solve a specific user problem?

Understanding the problem space: 

Conduct preliminary research to understand the users’ context. This includes market research, competitive analysis, and identifying user demographics.

Determining key questions: 

Formulate the questions that need answers to guide the design process. These include understanding user behaviors, preferences, challenges, and needs.

Clear goals ensure that the participatory design process stays focused and that the outcomes are measurable and actionable.

Step 2: Creating journey maps

Once the research goals are set, the next step is to create journey maps. These maps visualize the user’s experience and interactions with the product or service over time. Journey maps help in:

Identifying pain points: 

Highlight areas where users face difficulties or frustrations. This helps prioritize areas for improvement.

Moments of delight: 

Capture instances where users have positive experiences. Understanding these moments can inform what aspects to retain or enhance.

Opportunities for improvement: 

Discover gaps and opportunities in the user experience that can be addressed in the design.

By involving participants in creating journey maps, designers gain valuable insights directly from users, ensuring that the final design is aligned with real user needs.

Jump to this ultimate guidebook on Journey Mapping

Step 3: Understanding emotional responses

Emotional responses play a binding role in the user experience. During this participatory design process, exploring and documenting how users feel at various journey stages is essential. This involves:

Exploring user emotions: 

Use techniques like storytelling to elicit emotional responses from users. Ask them to share their experiences and how they felt during different interactions.

Creating mood boards: 

Compile visual representations of emotions, feelings, and moods that users associate with the product or service. This helps in understanding the emotional landscape.

Empathy mapping: 

Develop empathy maps to document what users say, think, feel, and do. This holistic view helps in designing more empathetic and user-centered solutions.

Understanding emotional responses ensures that the design resonates with users on a deeper level, addressing not just functional needs but emotional ones.

Step 4: Exploring initial concepts

With a robust understanding of the user journey and emotional responses, the next step is to explore initial concepts. This involves:

Brainstorming sessions: 

Conduct collaborative sessions where participants can freely share and discuss ideas. This encourages diverse perspectives and innovative solutions.

Sketching ideas: 

Translate ideas into visual sketches. This helps in quickly visualizing concepts and identifying potential design directions.

Creating low-fidelity prototypes: 

Develop simple, low-cost prototypes that can be easily modified. These prototypes serve as tangible representations of ideas that can be tested and refined.

Participants actively contribute ideas and feedback, fostering a collaborative environment where creativity thrives—this participatory design process allows for rapid testing and refinement of concepts based on user input.

Step 5: Think about preparation

Preparation is critical to the success of participatory design workshops. This includes:

Setting up the space: 

Whether physical or virtual, ensure the environment is conducive to collaboration. This might involve arranging a comfortable meeting space, setting up video conferencing tools, or preparing collaborative software.

Providing materials and tools: 

Ensure all necessary materials, such as sticky notes, markers, whiteboards, and digital tools, are available and accessible to participants.

Briefing participants: 

Communicate the workshop’s objectives and activities. Provide an agenda, explain the goals, and set expectations.

Scheduling sessions: 

Arrange sessions at convenient times for participants, considering different time zones if necessary. Ensure that the schedule entitles ample time for discussion and feedback.

Creating an inclusive environment: 

Foster a culture of openness and respect where all participants feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. This might involve setting ground rules or using facilitation techniques to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

Adequate preparation ensures that participatory design workshops are productive engaging, and result in meaningful insights and design solutions.

Participatory design tools

Based on your project, you can select appropriate tools for a participatory approach. The tools you utilize will vary depending on your aims and the types of participants. If everyone is in the same room, you can conduct the session without using any additional instruments. 

For remote participatory design, you can use:

  1. Surveys
  2. Interviews
  3. Online questionnaires
  4. Video conferencing

These technologies can let you collect data from many online participants. With the correct approach to collaboration, their input can be as significant. 

Get this exclusive UX tool list that will make UI UX design simpler for you.

Octet’s recommendation

Participatory design can be significantly more expensive and time-consuming than non-participatory design processes. However, in some cases, the benefits considerably outweigh the disadvantages. 

The participatory approach involves encouraging consumers to take action rather than simply speaking. As a result, they would produce prototypes, artifacts, and mockups that captured their desired product. What we cannot communicate in words may be captured in action; invest in participatory design if that is your intention.

Say you want to know what the next-generation workplace space means to its consumers. While numerous research methods exist to obtain this knowledge, participatory design would be more intriguing. In this instance, you would invite consumers to engage in the design practice. While they create their designs, the researcher can probe and grasp the essential ideas underlying the users’ aim. 

The purpose of participatory design is to identify user needs through design exercises rather than adopt participants’ designs precisely as they are.

If you want to get in-depth into the design, read these top UX books on your bookshelf.


1. What are the techniques used in the participatory approach?

In the participatory approach, various techniques are used to involve stakeholders in the design process and ensure their active participation. Some standard methods used in the participatory approach include: 

Co-design workshops: 

These workshops bring together designers, stakeholders, and end-users to collaborate on designing solutions collectively. 

Participatory observation: 

Observing how stakeholders interact with a system or a product helps understand their needs and preferences.


Creating prototypes, involving stakeholders in testing, and helping feedback on prototypes refine designs based on their input.

User personas and scenarios: 

Developing user personas and scenarios based on stakeholder input helps design solutions catering to their needs and goals.

Participatory usability testing: 

Involving stakeholders in usability testing helps identify usability issues early on and gather feedback for improvement.

Collaborative brainstorming: 

Encourage stakeholders to brainstorm ideas collectively to foster creativity and ensure diverse perspectives in the design process.


Creating visual representations of ideas and scenarios helps stakeholders envision the design solutions more effectively.

2. What are the three phases of participatory design?

The three phases of participatory design typically include:

Exploration phase: 

In this phase, designers and stakeholders engage in activities to understand the context of the design challenge. This involves gathering insights, conducting research, and identifying key stakeholders involved in the design process.

Design phase: 

During this phase, collaborative design activities occur where stakeholders actively participate in generating ideas, prototyping solutions, and making design decisions. This phase emphasizes co-creation and iteration based on feedback from stakeholders.

Implementation phase: 

This phase focuses on implementing the design solutions developed through stakeholder collaboration. It involves testing, refining, and finalizing the design with users’ active involvement to ensure it meets their needs and expectations.

3. What is participatory design vs inclusive design?

Participatory and inclusive design are related concepts that involve users in the design process but have distinct approaches and goals. 

Participatory design involves actively engaging users in the design process, allowing them to provide input, feedback, and ideas throughout the design process. The purpose is to create solutions that meet the specific needs and likings of the users. Participatory design often prioritizes collaboration and co-creation between designers and users, leading to user-centered design outcomes.

In contrast, inclusive design focuses on creating products or services that are accessible and functional by the broadest range of people possible, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Inclusive design aims to consider all users’ diverse needs and preferences from the beginning of the design process rather than retroactively addressing accessibility issues.

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Creative Director and Founder of Octet Design Studio- Aakash Jethwani
Aakash Jethwani

With an experience of 12+ years and serving more than 300+ projects, he is now leading a team of 25+ designers and developers and handling responsibility as founder and creative director at Octet Design Studio.

A design leader, known for creating and offering pixel-perfect design by striking a balance between design and technology to his clients while also managing his team and business.

His vision is to help companies disrupt market through designs and becoming a go-to partner for innovation. With a commitment to deep implementation of design strategies, he envisions pioneering innovative solutions to not only transforms businesses but also make it an essential requirement for the clients seeking unparalleled excellence.

His ultimate goal is to offer ‘experiences as a differentiator’ to clients seeking sustainable growth in the competitive digital landscape.

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