Participatory Design

What it is and why it’s important

BBH Stockholm
Mar 15, 2019 · 5 min read
Illustration by Adam Lindfors

User testing has become more and more popular over the last couple of years and that’s great! However, user testing is usually done on a more or less finished product and focuses primarily on testing interactions and performing tasks. What if we want to test something earlier in the process? This is where user participatory design (PD) comes into play.

PD is an iterative design approach that aims to develop an understanding of the user needs.

Unlike user testing, it involves the user all the way from idea to finished product. Basically, PD is used to find out what your product should be and what it should do. You then use user testing to make sure that people can use and understand the product without trouble.

So how does it work? Let’s use an example:
Let’s say that people only buy apples and oranges. For some reason we want people to buy more bananas. Now, if we only make the bananas even tastier and healthier, there’s no doubt people will buy them, right? Well no, not necessarily.

In order to find out why people don’t buy bananas, we invite a few people from our target group to be a part of our design process. We set up workshops in which the participants give us information and input about what role the bananas play in their lives. During the workshop, it becomes clear that there’s nothing wrong with the taste or health aspects of the bananas. It’s the fact that people can’t put bananas in their bags without mushing them on their way to work that is the deciding factor.

Houston, we’ve got a breakthrough!

If we wouldn’t have included the users this early in the process, we’d be working on tastier bananas by now, completely missing the real issue. This is one of the biggest strengths of participatory design.

Now that we know that the problem is protecting bananas and not enhancing the flavor, we can get to work. Try to piece together all the information that comes out of the workshops and group it up into themes. Once you’ve got something to show, bring it to the participants to their feedback. There’s usually a layer of politeness or even unawareness between what is being said and what is being felt so try to read between the lines. Did they say the banana protector felt a little heavy? Then maybe they won’t be carrying it with them and you’ll need to give the material a second thought. Keep iterating like this until you’re both happy!

When working with user participatory design there are a few things to keep in mind in order for it to be successful:

It’s then up to you to come up with some ideas that you can work on refining together.

Participatory design processes may seem like a hassle (and sometimes they are) but it’s usually worth the time and effort. If done right you’ll be taking smaller risks in terms of whether or not your product will fly and you’ll spend less time patching and fixing all the things you got wrong. That’s a huge plus, as making changes becomes more expensive and time-consuming the further along you go.


I hope you’ve found this post helpful and that I’ve managed to spark an interest in participatory design and why it’s so important. If not — maybe you’d at least like to buy a banana cover?

Originally published by Alexander Cook, UX at

BBH Stockholm

Designing Business Breakthroughs | BBH Stockholm