Philosophical foundations for Participatory Design are based on emerging
trends in computer-based system designs that seek to go beyond the limits
of formalization. These new trends represent efforts to restructure
the design of computer-based systems in favor of newer approaches thats
encourage creative thinking and doing design as participatory work between
users and designers.
The general sense is that formalized descriptions
while doing well to insure reliability and efficiency of a product
cannot do much in the way of guaranteeing suitability and relevance in
The main distinction seems to be the difference between
propositional knowledge and practical understanding. Propositional
knowledge is that which one can come to know and describe in so many
words. Factual information and what one can provide a definition for are
good examples of propositional knowledge.
Practical understanding goes beyond formal description. It is understanding
that comes from the practical experience of doing something and the recall to
mind of earlier experiences (Ehn,1993). Propositional knowledge alone of how to
draw does not make one a graphic artist, rather it is through practical
understanding gained from experience in drawing that one can come to be a graphic artist.
Useful designs rely on practical understanding of how tools are used. Designers gain
little or no practical understanding from formal system descriptions. The feeling is that
it is the lack of practical understanding of tools used by users that causes a
hindrance to successful designs.
The goal of participatory design is to provide a context for design
experts where they can gain the practical understanding they need for
successful design. Users possess the needed practical understanding
but lack the insight designers have into new technical possibilities.
Bringing designers and users together is the first step towards the
goal. The main difficulty lies in getting users to express their
practical understanding in the context of new technological possibilities.
Design by doing methods, prototyping, scenarios, and mockups are often
used to suggest future possibilities to users. Users learn about
possibilities and constraints of new computer tools, and as they put their
skill into practice in the new environment, users teach designers
their practical understanding.
Design takes on a new meaning in participatory design as the interaction
between practical understanding and creation (Ehn, 1993). Users and
designers use design artifacts as triggers for the imagination rather
than as mirror images of reality. Relaxation from correctness of system
descriptions opens an invitation to creativity and gives both users
and designers a chance to see new aspects of an already well-known practice.
It challenges both users and designers to either build on tradition or
create something totally new.
Effectiveness of participatory design depends on the full participation
of both users and designers. It remains a challenge in participatory
design to provide an environment that encourages learning, creativity and
communication between users and designers.