Participatory Design: What makes it so useful?


Participatory Design, also known as co-design or co-operative design is a creative approach that attempts to actively involve the stakeholders and end-users in the design process to ensure that the eventual solution meets their needs and is usable.

In cases where the users feel that the products they use force them to adapt to the ideas and principles that weren’t intuitive to them, participatory design could be the answer. The concept aims at including the intended users in the design process.

What is Participatory Design and when to use it?

Participatory Design is a strategy that is used to bring users to the heart of the design process. It is done so that the solutions we design meet with the needs of the intended users.

While working on designing solutions, it is common to include the users and the clients in the early phases of the process- the research phase, for example. But once we gather enough insights from the initial phases, we tend to limit our interaction with the users until the final phase- when we’re doing usability testing, evaluation, etc.

Once we have insights from user research, the responsibility of making design decisions is left to the design team alone. However, there is a way to make the process even more user-centered. There is immense value in ensuring that the users are a part of your process, especially when the ideas for designing a solution are being generated.

You can ideally conduct Co-design in the following cases-

  1. When you want to learn more about how people think about a given problem and how they design a solution to it.
  2. When you think there isn’t a match in what users say they do and what they actually do.

How it works.

As a part of the sessions, participants are given design elements or creative materials with tasks. Using these elements, they’re expected to construct their ideal experiences in a way that expresses what their actual needs are.

How to conduct one?

Nothing is set in stone! You may use any tool on the basis of what you actually hope to learn from the co-design. You could just provide the participants with pens and papers and ask them to draw. Or you could provide them with cutouts of icons, boxes and text, and ask them to arrange it as per their liking, while asking them why they arranged it in certain ways.

Points to remember-

  1. Keep the tools as simple as possible. 
    The activity must be aimed at giving the participants the creative freedom to design their own thing, without having to spend time learning how to use the tool.
  2. Ask a lot of questions!
    The idea of co-design is to listen more to the users so that we can avoid making mistakes. Ask several questions to the participants regarding what they designed and why that certain specific way. This will help you understand what their preferences/priorities are.
  3. Observe!
    While the participants are working on their tasks, make it a point to spend that time closely observing what they’re doing. It is interesting how much you can learn by just observing.

The motivation behind Participatory Design is letting the intended users SHOW us what matters to them instead of them just telling us. Understanding how someone would solve a challenge they’re given often helps us designers gain new insights about their experiences. The new information gained through these activities could help better inform what decisions the designers make during the design process. This comes as a result of the intended users offering ideas and those ideas serving as actionable inspiration for the solutions.


  1. Immense potential to bring in fresh new perspectives.
    Designers often get caught up with their common assumptions. Participatory Design could help bring in new points of views and learnings to the table. More often than not, the perspectives shared by the designers don’t align with the ones shared by the users.
  2. Helps designers discover new directions.
    As a result of conducting co-design during the ideation phase, the designers could discover new directions that they could explore for designing the solution.
  3. It opens up new opportunities to receive valuable user feedback and suggestions.


  1. The sample size of the co-design can often be too small and not reflective of the entire group.
  2. The whole process is time-consuming.
  3. The process isn’t structured and can be chaotic if not handled well.


In conclusion, this method is a good way to get the users to describe what they expect from the eventual product, by actually building and sketching imaginary solutions to problems.

We can always design an intuitive and a highly streamlined experience based just on rigorous research, but participatory design offers opportunities to design a more personalized experience.