Photo: Matthias Weber

Engaging User Participation with Prototypes

Jacob Svensson
Nov 11, 2013 · 4 min read

I am an interaction designer and I am trained in user centered design (UCD). I work a lot with different prototypes throughout a design process. Whether prototypes are made of paper or plastic, are digital or analog, they are often used for user testing.

The UCD approach highlights the importance to involve users in the design process, as they are the ones who will use the product or service on a daily basis. To be able to build a better product or service for the user, we try to understand them through various design metods and user tests. The things we learn from the user tests is utilized in an iterative design process. But the participants are not in the power to directly modify the prototypes. The prototypes are developed by what the designers believe the user wants. Of course, if the user tests are done well the better we know the user (Sharp et al. 2007, Halse 2010).

In CoDesign prototypes tend to be used differently. They are not only shared with the participants earlier in the design process, but also used as invitations to participation, and to collaboratively iterate the design. Prototypes invite the user into a collaborative design process where prototypes are built togheter with the participants. This could make it easier to criticize and modify the design by the participants. Furthermore, in CoDesign prototype better explores scenarios of the participants point of view and they are invited to modify the prototypes to explore further possibilities. Whereas, in UCD the designers tend to be the experts using their and their teams insights (Halse 2010, Simonsen & Robertson 2012).

Prototypes as Invitations

In our CoDesign project on sustainable transportation we used prototypes to engage participants. In a similar manner to UCD, we used the prototypes to learn about the different users and stakeholders in our project. But like in CoDesign our prototypes also worked like invitations. We designed several invitations to reach drivers. We designed invitations in the form of a poster and a post on social media, both of which gave little to no response. This was a problem that we could solve by using our design skills.

Prototype as Provotypes

We turned from politely asking. Drivers had no interest to get in contact with us, which forced us to confront them. The new invitation was designed to be provoking and to question car use in the city. The prototype became a provotype (Boer & Donovan 2012). The new invitation was design to look exactly like a parking fine. This fine would on itself be provoking as the driver would know they should not have received any. However, a message was also placed; basically highlighting that the cost of the fine could have been invested in a lot of other things or experiences.

The fine became a well balanced provotype, it roughly followed the provotype guidelines Boer & Donovan (2012) argue for. The provotype were placed on windshields in a parking lot outside a supermarket where drivers would not expect to receive any fines.

The confusion the provotype raised gave us an opportunity to approach a potential participant as we had stepped back and waited for her to enter the car. The provotype gave us the opportunity to talk to people, of whom we wanted to engage with. It was vital to approach a potential participant, asking politely for a couple of minutes of their time to receive their thoughts. The few that we approached, stayed and talked to us. To buy some extra time with the participants we designed a physical object and let them place small chocolate bars (that looked like coins) for different alternatives depending on the question. It was probably good to let the participants use there hands as it felt they became more relaxed.

We also placed fines on numerous cars to see if we would receive any feedback via a web site that were set up as well. This, unfortunately did not give any additional feedback.


Aftershocks

Two weeks after we conducted the workshop, the provotye took an unexpected turn. We held an interview with Sunfleet, the biggest car sharing company in Sweden, and told them about the provotype. They tweeted a picture of the provotype which spread through retweets by the Malmö municipality, and Malmö University and continued to provoke online. This led to more traffic to our website and a few post form other part of the country.


Aftershocks 2.0

Several month later we recived a call from our contact at Sunfleet. He told us that the municipality of Linköping wanted to use our provotype for a workshop. It was fun and encouraging that a municipality thought that provotypes could be a way to engage with users. Unfortunately we did not receive any feedback from the workshop.



References

Boer, L & Donovan, J (2012). Provotypes for Participatory Innovation. In: Proceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (DIS ‘12). ACM, NY. http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2317956.2318014

Halse, Joachim (red.) (2010). Rehearsing the Future. København: The Danish Design School Press

Sharp, Helen & Rogers,Yvonne & Preece, Jennifer (2007). Interaction Design: Beyond Human-Computer Interaction. 2. ed. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley

Simonsen, Jesper & Robertson, Toni (red.) (2012). Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. New York: Routledge

    Jacob Svensson

    Written by

    I believe in design through iterative processes with users and prototypes. On the weekends I like to go on long bicycle rides through Skåne.

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