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Participatory Design: The Art Form of Interviewing as a Trio

Melody Paine
Oct 7 · 9 min read

I’m Melody, and I’m the Sr Manager of UX Research at Glassdoor. I’d like to share a recent story about how we used a participatory design exercise in order to move our new blank slate design concept forward quickly and effectively. We chose very simple tools and techniques to conduct our UX research sessions as a trio: with a target end user, a UX researcher, and a UX designer.

Participatory design interviewing has been around for quite a long time. In essence, it’s a type of focused collaboration where the conversation flows quickly from the user to the designer and back in real-time. It’s used to generate ideas for brand new design solutions and/or to help adjust a part or section of an experience that isn’t working well. It can be done in many ways, but the least complex way is with a closely-connected team of three people who work together for the allotted time in the session while stakeholders observe.

The user can do a number of things: draw or sketch their own ideas, describe their ideas, build a design from pre-made modules or components, change or create labels for pieces of content, re-arrange components on an existing design concept screen, etc.

The researcher leads the discussion and encourages the user to elaborate and clarify their thoughts, and pays attention to when a new idea builds upon or replaces an earlier one.

The designer mostly plays the role of prepared listener and on-the-fly solution architect who translates the ideas they hear into pictures, jots down notes to assign a purpose to each screen or section the user suggests, and vets what they’ve captured by checking with the user: ”something like this?” When it’s not quite right but getting warmer they try again, with better direction from the user. By sketching and building on the fly, the user’s ideation capacity increases because they can react to something and extend their thinking from what they’ve seen. This approach isn’t meant to fully dictate solutions. It simply ensures that whatever gets created is user-centered.

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Participatory design exercises can be used for an entire interview if the solution is broad, such as an end-to-end servicing flow, or for as brief a time as one research exercise inside an interview if the topic is more focused, such as a single screen. It can work well both for overhauling a broken workflow or for a net new concept or experience, such as a dashboard screen or a rarely-encountered state of an experience like an edge case or an empty state.

We used this technique for one exercise in an interview related to redesigning a Zero Search Results page state in our jobs inventory. We had a design concept for it, but we had no idea how close it was to what users would appreciate. It was a huge departure from the existing state of the page and there was no time to do several rounds of iteration before the project launch, as we were also pushing it out with COVID-19 messaging and resources. So, we chose a method that we knew would help us accelerate our learning.

We recruited participants who had experienced the Zero Results problem in their job search so they could relate to the design scenario. Participants joined a Zoom meeting with the researcher, the designer, and any other observers (e.g. product managers, engineers). The researcher began the session by introducing the UX designer who listened for the first two sections of the interview to 1) fully absorb the user’s perspective and habits and 2) hear and observe the user’s reaction to the design in the concept test. The InVision concept test was done over Zoom screen sharing.

After the concept test, we switched to a Google Drawings board screen share where we had a mobile phone frame along with the components users had seen in the concept test, now broken out and draggable into the phone frame. We also provided blank components for users to fill in or drag into the concept if desired. The designer created ten pre-made identical Google Drawings boards, one for each new session. The user had remote control of the researcher’s screen, so they could drag and drop their desired components onto the mobile phone frame in the order they wanted, rearranging if necessary.

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Google Drawings board components and mobile phone frame workspace

Users could leave items off the phone frame that they didn’t want or need, and they could create and place new items onto the frame with the designer’s help, noting what it would do, say, or show. Users controlled the researcher’s machine while working on the Google Drawings board for their session number (e.g. Session 7). This way, the risk of deleting or doing something unrecoverable with their design in progress was minimal — the researcher could easily take over and paste a module back in or drag them around for the user if they struggled to move and place items.

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Participatory design exercise in action

At the end of the exercise, the researcher asked the user to explain their rationale for their design, top to bottom, then talk about any items left on the Google Drawings board that they did not include.

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All completed Google Drawings board participatory design exercises

Let’s hear from Lead Glassdoor Product Designer Seva Dyakov in his own words…

What went through your mind when you first heard the suggestion to include a participatory design exercise in this research?

“I have collaborated with research partners over the years. We’ve done various types of studies, but I have grown accustomed to being an observer. Sometimes I’d be sitting on the other side of a one-way mirror. Other times, muted on a video conference call while I watched, listened, and processed user feedback and took notes. That was my traditional role when conducting user research. The idea of being an active participant was completely new for me.”

What, if anything, were you reluctant about when it came to being an active part of the research sessions?

“One major factor on my mind was that I have some physical limitations. I won’t go into detail but the bottom line is that I am not able to sit in front of a computer for several back-to-back Zoom sessions in a row. But, typically, that’s how research sessions are scheduled. Speaking with ten participants, plus the kick-off, plus debrief and some sync-ups between sessions, usually means a couple of days of pretty much non-stop Zoom.

Also, I wasn’t trained for participatory design research. Getting involved was the right thing to do, given the type of study we were planning, but would I be able to do this gracefully? Would I be able to keep up with our participants? Would I say the wrong thing? Would my involvement be helpful? There was only one way to find out.”

What ultimately helped you become comfortable enough with the research design to give it a try?

“My awesome research partners were incredibly accommodating and created the study schedule to work around my limitations. We ended up spreading out the study over the entire week, doing two sessions per day with an hour interval between them. I am so glad Melody proposed this option. Otherwise, I would not have been able to take an active part in this participatory design study.

When Melody first introduced the idea of my being involved as an active participant, she said something along the lines of: “I know you have the skills to do this.” This boosted my confidence.

Thorough and thoughtful preparation was extremely important. We tried to anticipate which UI elements participants might need in order to express their thinking. This included variations of content modules as well as blank “wild card” modules of various formats that could be easily adapted for different circumstances and types of content.

Conducting a dry run a couple of days before the actual research study took place was critical. This made a world of difference for me.

Having amazing research partners was definitely key!”

We decided to use very basic, familiar programs for this research exercise (Google Drawings and Zoom Remote Control). How did that go? Do you wish we had used something else?

“We considered a number of tools for the job. The usual suspects were InVision Freehand, Miro, and Google Drawings. For the simple task of study participants rearranging premade modules on the screen to indicate the desired hierarchy, any of these tools would work fine. In the end, we decided on Google Drawings simply because it was easy to make the board usable for the moderator and participant via a link, and we didn’t need to worry about any account creation or logging in.”

You’re a very astute and experienced research session observer. How did it feel to take an active role in the research sessions? How did it feel to assist with experience modeling on the fly?

“It felt a little odd at first. It took me two or three sessions to get comfortable and get into the rhythm.

The biggest challenge was interpreting what participants were saying, and turning their words into UI elements, either using components prepared ahead of time or quickly creating new ones based on feedback. And, all of that had to happen as participants watched me manipulate the elements on the Google Drawings board in real-time. That part was a little stressful. After the first two or three sessions, common patterns began to emerge and the need to create new UI components on the fly diminished. After that, things went smoother.

Transitioning from my typical role of an observer to an active participant felt a bit strange at first. Part of what I needed to do was occasionally interject and ask participants for clarification when I wasn’t sure how to transform what they were saying into graphic form. It felt like I was interrupting their thought process. I also didn’t want to make them feel like what they were saying didn’t make sense. After a few sessions, as I became more comfortable, I started speaking up more freely and that really helped clarify things.”

Was there any new kind of insight or design thinking advantage this method gave you which you had not previously experienced? What was that?

“Two things were confirmed for me as part of this experience. Most people’s thinking is not linear. It’s not uncommon to see people start a thought and then backtrack, go on a tangent, or change their minds completely. Expect this and be prepared to react quickly. Also, not everyone can clearly articulate their thinking on the first go, especially when presented with hypothetical scenarios. It’s okay to pause and ask questions.

The challenge is to keep the core thread of participants’ thinking, interpret what they are saying correctly, and then quickly turn those thoughts into graphic elements they can manipulate on the board in front of them.”

Thank you, Seva!

Once our interviews were complete, we discovered three main problems with our first iteration: 1) we had a “false bottom” on our screen; 2) our content organization did not match users’ priorities of “narrow to broad;” and 3) our COVID-19 messaging needed copy tone, grouping, and placement changes.

Had we done this research as a series of design concept tests, it would have taken us at least two or three rounds of testing to identify and resolve these issues just by listening to users and observing their interactions on our prototypes. Instead, we were able to collect all the insights from the first concept test and immediately iterate with users during their sessions. This assisted ideation allowed us to solve major design problems, generate missing content, and improve messaging all in one study. Participatory design research helped us quickly turn an “uh-oh” screen with Zero Search Results into a seamless “wow” experience with relevant suggestions and content.

Glassdoor Design

Perspectives from the Glassdoor Design team.

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