Double the Trouble or Twice as Nice?: Defining Participation for Practice and Research

Double the Trouble or Twice as Nice?: Defining Participation for Practice and Research

Lisa Haskel (Centre for Digital Entertainment, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/ijskd.2014100102
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Participatory Design (PD) is an extremely productive field of practice with great benefits to communities and individuals. It is a stimulating and exciting way of working that brings new relationships and experiences to all concerned. However, as a collaborative and situated practice it brings with it a number of challenges for the early-stage academic researcher. This paper reflects on some of the challenges of defining participation in the dual areas of production and research from the point of view of a practice-based doctoral researcher in PD. The contributions of some research methods in addressing these challenges, notably Action Research and Design Research, are discussed. In response, it is suggested that researchers might benefit from differentiating the roles of participants in production and research. It is further suggested that this two-fold definition of participation may be possible without compromising projects' ethical integrity.
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A practice-based research project that involves PD has two sets of outcomes. Firstly, there is the designed artefact that – hopefully – fulfils its intended use. Secondly, there are research outcomes through which new knowledge is generated and circulated. The PD literature provides a strong framework for enabling participation in practical design activities. On the other hand, defining the role of 'participant' is fundamental to a whole range of research methodologies. The challenge for practice-based research in PD is to identify research methodologies that are consistent with PD's commitment to a deep level or participation, and provide positive outcomes for both co-produced real-world projects and academic research.

PD can be summarised as design activity for and with users, with the aim of producing both useful and usable systems, and a set of less tangible benefits to participants such as personal development and the improvement of working conditions. On a theoretical level, PD is informed by pragmatist philosophy that privileges experience and interaction with the real world as the primary source of knowledge (Bannon & Ehn, 2013). It is motivated by a belief that all people should be empowered to contribute to shaping the world around them (Robertson & Wagner, 2013). The three “core perspectives” of PD have been identified as (Bratteteig, Bødker, Dittrich, Mogensen & Simonsen, 2013, p.117):

  • “Having a say”

  • “Co-realisation”

  • “Mutual learning”

These core principles indicate the depth of participation and collaboration that distinguish PD from other human-centred design methods. PD therefore can be seen as above-all social, involving unique gatherings of individuals in unique contexts. Because of these characteristics, PD is seen as a situated practice.

At the Doctoral Consortium at the 2014 Participatory Design Conference in Windhoek, Namibia, Jose Abdelnour-Nocera encouraged students to consider if PD was the 'subject or object' of their research. This is a very interesting but somewhat elusive question that asks us to consider our position as researchers as insiders or outsiders to the knowledge we hope to produce, and probes the relationship of research to practice. The question prompts us to consider our research methodologies from this perspective. If we are insiders then our methodologies should acknowledge our subjectivity and put us inside the change we are affecting. If PD is the object of our research, then we must make a clear distinction between our role as producers and our role as researchers.

The question is similar to the distinctions proposed by Bruce Archer in “The Nature of Research” in which he investigates how design and research interrelate. Archer proposes three different configurations for practice and research: studies about practice, studies for the purposes of contributing to practitioner activities, and studies through the medium of practice (1995).

Indeed, the character and purpose of “design research” or “research through design” is a much discussed topic since the 1960s at least. Perspectives range from those that seek to discover an objective, scientific basis for design products (Bayazit, 2004), to those that aim to develop theory and new methods (for example Zimmerman, Stolterman & Forlizzi, 2010), to those that value subjective reflection as the primary route to progressing practice (for example Schön 1983, 1990; Scrivener, 2000). These authors have written about the relationship of research to practice; discussing and defining the necessity or otherwise to distinguish practical outcomes from research outcomes, the methodologies required and the possible claims. However, despite this body of writing, forms of work accepted as academic research within design remains contested and unclear, at least at doctoral level in the UK (Candlin, 2000; Yee, 2007).

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