Yesterday at lunch time Dr. Lucy Suchman gave a talk to the Technology & Society committee about Participatory Design. Dr Suchman has been a researcher as Xerox PARC since 1979, where she heads the Work Practice and Technology area. She received a Ph.D. in Social/Cultural Anthropology from UC Berkeley in 1984 and was a founding member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), a group she served on the board of directors of from 1983 to 1991.
Participatory Design is basically going out of the design lab where products have been traditionally designed, into the workspaces of the technology users, and finding out what people want before building something new. This makes better blends between technical possibilities and user requirements than can be dreamed up by people who don't know how their stuff will really be used.
She spent a lot of time on a case study. She is currently finishing a project for CAL-TRANS, who is doing a massive earthquake retrofit of the highway system. She focused on one project where they decided to "retrofit" a bridge originally built by some grocers in 1927 with a new bridge as the most cost effective way to bring it up to code. The non engineering documentation for the project amounted to about 27 shelf feet of documentation binders. Her system made it possible to put all that information online, allowing papers to be found by keyword, date, or several other parameters. Many hours were spent interviewing users about how and why they did things before the system was designed so that it would really serve their needs.
In the q&a session that followed her talk one theme that came up over and over was that there are both good and bad reasons that document flows work the way they do. Many times change is a double edged sword, and needs to be approached carefully. Privacy, security, political dynamics, and many other sensitive issues do not lend themselves to one size fits all solutions, and there is much that needs to be handled on a case by case basis. Participatory design is a way of taking the process where it needs to go so that a "best fit" can emerge.