Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Participatory Design with Marginalized People in Developing Countries: Challenges and Opportunities Experienced in a Field Study in Cambodia

Academic journal article International Journal of Design

Participatory Design with Marginalized People in Developing Countries: Challenges and Opportunities Experienced in a Field Study in Cambodia

Article excerpt


The use of participatory design is often advocated when developing new solutions for economically or socially marginalised people in developing countries (see for example Arce, 2004; Sharma et al., 2008). It is argued that through including users in the design process designers can understand their needs better (Arce, 2004). Yet, few studies address the real-life challenges of doing participatory design projects in developing countries or how participatory design methods have to be adapted to local conditions. What possibilities and challenges do designers face when trying to organize participatory projects in developing countries? How do they have to mediate between the wish to have high levels of user participation and cultural, economic, and organizational restrictions? The various forms user inclusion takes, due to practical challenges in real projects in developing countries, are rarely discussed.

Participatory design is a design approach in which users and other stakeholders work with designers in the design process (Sanders, Brandt, & Binder, 2010). Participatory design practitioners share the view that every participant is an expert in how they live their lives and that design ideas arise in collaboration with participants from diverse backgrounds (Sanoff, 2007). The core idea is that the people who are affected by a decision or an event should have an opportunity to influence it. Democratic decision making processes are, therefore, important in participatory design projects (Schuler & Namioka, 1993). The strength of this design approach is that it cuts across traditional professional boundaries and cultures (Sanoff, 2007). However, an important challenge for success is to find appropriate ways of involving and engaging people in participatory design activities (Sanders et al., 2010).

Participatory design was pioneered in Scandinavia. It evolved as a design approach from work beginning in the early 1970s in Norway when computer professionals and union leaders strove to enable workers to have more influence on computer systems in the workplace (Winograd, 1996). Several projects in Scandinavia were aimed at finding effective ways for computer system designers to collaborate with labor organizations to develop systems that most effectively promoted the quality of work life. Currently, participatory design is being used in a large variety of fields, such as product design, urban design, organizational development, geography, and information technology (Sanoff, 2007). The underlying assumptions in literature emerging from a Western perspective are usually that workspaces, or other communities, are democratic, that they have high literacy rates, and that there is a reasonable technological infrastructure present (Puri, Byrne, Nhampossa, & Quraishi, 2004). Although these assumptions can also be questioned in Western projects, Puri et al. (2004) point out that it is unrealistic to make any of these assumptions in a developing country context. What happens when participatory design approaches are transferred to cultures that have much stronger social hierarchal structures than Scandinavian societies and have greater variations in education and income level than in Western countries?

The traditional model for participatory design is described in Figure 1. Designers team up with users and some other selected stakeholders to do co-creation, i.e., participatory design. Together, often in workshops, user needs and problems with existing technology or products are identified and new solutions are developed. It is almost taken for granted that participants are available, have the skills for contributing to the design process, and will be able to work together in an egalitarian manner.

[Figure omitted, see PDF]

Figure 1. Traditional model for participatory design.

This figure is based on a general understanding of participatory design

often reflected in literature [derived from Figure 3 in (Sanders & Stappers, 2008, p. …

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