Research: Participatory Design in the Third World

“The use of participatory design is often advocated when developing new solutions for economically or socially marginalised people in developing countries. It is argued that through including users in the design process designers can understand their needs better” 

This article examines participatory design as a tool that can allow designers to work with the users of a specific context to better understand their needs and looks specifically at the prosthetics design project in Cambodia. This method views the end users as experts of their own lives and believes that they should be able to impact decisions made about their lives. The psychological empowerment of the user is key to successfully conducting participatory design. The designers must be well informed of the situation; they must research and be knowledgeable about the user as well as culture and traditions. Designers have a responsibility to then share their knowledge and skills in a useful manner to empower the users. Furthermore, they must create an environment in which user ability is raised and they can “communicate their own ideas and to engage in design processes.”
This process can be made difficult for several reasons. 

Four main issues were identified: Human aspects; Social, cultural, and religious aspects; Financial aspects and project timeframe; and Organizational aspects. Human aspects can be related to issues with human resources, and negotiating. For example, In a participatory healthcare design project between Tanzania and Sweden, there was a lack of human resources in Tanzania to participate; supporting the workers in Tanzania was made into a priority and designers had to be flexible in their schedules. It is key to adapt participation methods to suit the local environment and users. Social, cultural, and religious aspects arise in many different ways; for example during the project with Cambodia the designers had to be sure to get the “oldest and most respected” prosthetist on board with the project since the culture has a strong social hierarchy with strong respect for elders. It is very important to take cultural differences into consideration and understand how different power structures may impact design methodologies. Designers must consider the ethics of design workshops: “Power structures and customs for interaction with children and concepts about their place in society can make it difficult for both children and adults to cooperate as equal design partners. To put them together in a workshop without preparing them is not ethical.”

Financial aspects pertain to available funding, and may impact whether or not participants can be given monetary rewards. Monetary rewards are not always required to ensure participation; in Cambodia the budget was small and users participated willingly out of a genuine interest. The project timeframe will determine how many workshops can be conducted and consequently how deep participation can go.
The article notes that these types of partnerships are not always the most beneficial and may actually present more drawbacks than positives. If the budget and timeframe is not available, if willing participants cannot be found, or if cultural conflicts cannot be resolved, other solutions may be pursued. 

Why This is Important:

As designers in a foreign country, it is highly important that we employ participatory design methods and include the users in as many parts of our design process as possible. Culture exchange and the sharing of knowledge are vital for allowing us to make wise decisions about our designs, and empowering the users in Longido to make decisions about these designs that may impact their lives. Furthermore, by including the end users in the design process, we can create designs that they understand and can maintain and reproduce themselves.

Hussain, S., Sanders, E. B. N., & Steinert, M. (2012). Participatory design with marginalized people in developing countries: Challenges and opportunities experienced in a field study in Cambodia.International Journal of Design, 6(2), 91-109.

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