Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Participatory Design Vs. Design for Participation: Exploring the Difference


Pop quiz! Which of these descriptions exemplifies participatory museum practice?

  1. Museum invites community members to participate in the development and creation of an exhibit. The exhibit opens. It looks like a traditional exhibit.
  2. Museum staff create an exhibit by a traditional internal design process, but the exhibit, once open, invites visitors to contribute their own stories and participation. The exhibit is dynamic and changes somewhat in response to visitors' actions.
The answer (for me) is both. But the difference between the two examples teases out a problem in differentiating "participatory design" from "design for participation." In the first case, you are making the design process participatory. In the second, you make the product participatory. My burning question is whether these should remain exclusive from each other. Is an exhibit participatory if no visitor sees a place for her own contribution? Is it participatory if the contributory experience was designed without her input?

Participatory Design means Innovating the Process

There are museums pursuing participatory design for a variety of reasons: to increase the diversity of voices represented in exhibits, to cast wider nets for great ideas on program topics, to engage particular partners in the exhibit design process. I once worked on a project where the main goal behind our community-based participatory model was to make our exhibit process faster and cheaper. Some projects engage a very small, well-defined segment of the community as partners in the process (such as the Wing Luke Asian Museum's well-documented community process), whereas others invite open participation (such as MN150, Tech Virtual, and Click! A Crowd-Curated Exhibition) from across the world.

But the visitor experience of these exhibits isn't necessarily altered by the innovative process that created it. For some museum professionals and projects, this is a good thing--it "proves" that participatory design can yield products that meet institutional standards. But if the goal is to change as many peoples' perception of the institutional relationship to community members as possible, then limiting yourself to a hidden participatory process is problematic.

The simplest way to demonstrate the participatory process is to expose it, to transparently show off the people and process involved. But that might not make for a better exhibit. Do people really care to learn the intricacies of how the exhibit was made? Does knowing that individuals from their neighborhoods were involved change their perspective of the institution?

Design for Participation means Innovating the Product

Transparency may tell the story, but it won't make drop-in visitors feel that the institution invites their participation. The less simple but more effective way is to create participatory experiences on the floor, to offer every drop-in visitor a legitimate way to contribute to the museum and see their contribution respected and responded to. This is incredibly hard, and very different than changing your exhibit design process. The Ontario Science Centre is doing some of this in their Weston Family Innovation Centre, where visitors every day make and augment physical and virtual objects that are displayed in the museum. The Innovation Centre is an entirely responsive space, designed for people to use each other's work as inspiration and generally to see themselves as co-creators of the space.

But the Innovation Centre is a struggle to manage. It's messy and it always changes. It consumes stuff. There are some people who'd prefer to just stop the action, put the participation-to-date on display, and call it "done." But it's never done. And that's a major monkey wrench in the standard models for how museums operate, staff, and fund their work.

Do you Need Participatory Design for Participatory Experiences?

One of the other unusual--and challenging--aspects of the Weston Family Innovation Centre is that it was designed by a lengthy, expensive participatory process that involved hundreds of prototypes and exploratory activities. It was co-designed by staff across the Ontario Science Centre, teen co-conspirators, and visitors via a series of ingenious brainstorming and making exercises developed by Julie Bowen and her brilliant team. Julie has commented that without this intense, exhaustive participatory process, they could not have designed such a successful, authentic-feeling participatory public space. Engaging in the participatory process also helped the staff transition to imagining their new roles in the eventual visitor experience.

But do you really need a participatory process to produce a platform for participation? Not always. There are fabulous participatory platforms--from community murals to StoryCorps to PostSecret--that are designed without a lick of user involvement. I've written often about the art of designing platforms for participation, and the extent to which designers need to constrain and control the experience to structure comfortable, successful venues for participation.

But an interesting problem arises when a participatory platform feels unresponsive, and users don't feel that their contributions are being respected or valued. Consider the user reactions (ranging from enthusiasm to uproar) to the evolving design of Facebook over time. Users, who see themselves as co-creators (if not owners) of the Facebook experience, reacted negatively and protested when they felt that their interests were not taken into account. From Facebook's perspective, the company was in control of the designed experience and had the right to roll out changes without consulting users. Users disagreed. Facebook is learning how to negotiate this relationship. They need to treat respect users as design collaborators (to some extent) if they want to keep them as contributors.

But how far does that go? Do true participatory platforms need participatory design processes behind them? Or do designers just need to be transparent about how the platform works and how users' contributions feed into the experience?

This question isn't rhetorical; it's something I'm really grappling with as I work with museums that are trying to be more "participatory" overall. To me, a participatory museum is one in which visitors perceive the institution as actively inviting and incorporating contributions from non-professionals. Does that require participatory design, design for participation, or both?

5 comments, add yours!:

Paul Orselli said...

Hi Nina,

Here's one place where Museum 1.0 and Museum 2.0 collide --- if a museum consistently "delivers the goods" exhibit-wise most visitors don't really care (as you indicate) about the process that produced a particular exhibition.

Community-minded exhibition PROCESS often seems to become a major part of the exhibition PRODUCT, and I'm not really sure it means a better exhibition in the end.

Maria Mortati said...

Hi Nina,

I agree with Paul- PD or DP doesn't necessarily result in a better exhibit experience.

Maybe I'm being too literal, but aren't exhibits inherently participatory because you come to them? Olafur Eliasson's work comes to mind...

Some museums are doing a great job by utilizing their web and public programming staff to augment exhibit experiences and invite participation. That's a lot less expensive than developing new exhibits.

In any case, I think it can require either approach, but on a case by case basis. They can work together or separately. There is no one size fits all approach for any institution or exhibit experience. They are as unique as you and me.

I think a key to DP success is modeled by Julie Bowen (yes, wonderful) and OSC-- prototyping the process with staff as well as the public when time and money allow.

Michiel said...

Hi Nina

To me both approaches have their merits for the design of an exhibition, but one is not necessarily linked to the other. PD is extremely rewarding and can lead to many user insights and inspiring input which professionals would not necessarily think of, but it can be expensive and very time consuming. Furthermore I think PD won't necessarily lead to DP as many users might not be accustomed to thinking of a museum in this way and might look for design solutions in more recognizable, conventional examples.

I believe DP can be a very powerful tool for exhibition design. It is also something that will reflect in the final product itself, or in some cases even be the final product. As such it seems more important than PD.

Which is not to say the one should exclude the other of course. If there is an opportunity for PD its possibilities in obtaining in real (and museum-personal) user insights are to any museum exhibit very valuable.

So to me it seems, use both if possible, but one shouldn't be dependent of the other and in keeping the final product in mind DP seems the most important in creating an exemplifying participatory experience for museums.

Nina Simon said...

Thank you, Michiel. That is very well put.

Richard Layman said...

The question gets Freirean, and how the participant is impacted and changed by the experience of participation. I think in a museum, where for the most part, an exhibit is presented to attendees rather than created and modified by them is different from the Freirean kind of experience. At the end of the day, it's still about a curated, professionally interpreted experience.

I have, but have not read _Design and Landscape for People_ which is about participation-engaged-developed renewal projects, which is another way of looking at this question.

In either case, in the museum world, given the end product, you have to wonder how much difference there really is. (cf. http://www.amazon.com/Change-Principles-Problem-Formation-Resolution/dp/0393011046)

My joke with the latter book is to take a chest of drawers. If you move your underwear from the top drawer to the bottom drawer, and your socks from the bottom drawer to the top drawer, have you really changed anything.

Watzlawick calls that first order change. Second order change is fundamentally different.