What it means to take part

February 17, 2022

I think part of being interested in designing with people is trying to understand what this might look like.

There’s more than one way that participation can show up or be defined. As Sarah Fathallah has said, “participatory design, in its definition, really depends on who is defining it.”

Some people have helped define these terms, like, Alba Villamil, who said:

Co-design involves shared decision-making power over the creation process while participatory design only implies involvement. So all co-design is participatory but not all participatory design is co-design.

Kelly-Ann McKercher shares their views on this often. Most recently, they created a tool for understanding if you’re doing co-design.

[Some] frame co-design as the peak of a pyramid. Other forms of engagement are lower down, labelled 'less participatory.' In implication, less worthwhile. This framing is narrow. While co-design can be powerful, even the best tools aren’t suitable for every task.

Kelly-Ann McKercher, quoted above with their collaborator Georgia Gardner, sees participation as a spectrum. So did Arnstein.

In this post, I looked at interesting projects through the lens of what it means to take part. What is the person, who is participating, doing? How might their experience help us understand design?


Being watched

GRIT Toronto is a usability testing service led by Code for Canada. They test products or services with diverse residents of Toronto to help design things that work for them. At its core, people are ‘being watched’ as they use or do something – although, I trust that it’s more comfortable than ‘being watched’ sounds.

Being helped and listened to

To understand the experiences of people applying for a new benefit in California, the CA Public Utilities Commission and ODI created a page on covid19.ca.gov. Visitors to the page could leave a question or comment with their contact information. When researchers followed up, they actually helped people apply – by assisting and answering questions – while capturing their experiences.

Discussed and being amplified

Fragments was a research and design project led by ff.studio and Peopletoo, in collaboration with Essex County Council. They wanted to understand different ways to deal with ‘risks in the community.’ They held group workshops to discuss amongst people with differing perspectives. Their goal was to ‘amplify the voices of practitioners and experts’ and their hope was to ‘reflect them fairly.’

Learning and leading

In this project, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members were employed as community researchers to investigate the impact of the pandemic in rural and remote Indigenous communities in Australia. Here, there was a focus on meaningful participation and building research capacity, which might extend behind the limits of one project. Community members were trained and paid to lead.


This was originally published on my newsletter, Design With. It was archived in 2023.