Jul 18

I-methodology and user participation

How do designers create things for people who are very different from themselves? That’s the deceptively simple question that I seem to keep coming back to in my research. There’s a lot of prescriptive work intended to help practitioneers answer that question. Much of this functionalist literature explains contextual design methods as well as participatory design. A much smaller body of literature examines how designers really answer this question during the design process.

I’m primarily interested in the research that looks at the design process as a social process (mainly because design is a social process). Some of the research I’ve reviewed concludes that designers tend to end up designing for themselves while another portion of the literature specifically looks at projects that include the intended users to some degree and tries to problematize “participation.”

This first body of research is primarily in STS studies. One of the earlier articles I read was by Oudshoorn, Rommes, and Stienstra (2004) who conducted ethnographic interviews with the designers of “digital cities,” free access points on the Internet for local communities in the Netherlands. They concluded that the designers employed an “I-methodology” in their design practices. An “I-methodology,” the researchers explain, is “a design practice in which designers consider themselves as representative of the users” and rely “on personal experience…” (p. 41). Of course participatory design is suppposed to modulate this tendency.

While both the Information Systems and Human Computer Interaction disciplines address user inclusion in the design process from a functionalist perspective, there are some researchers working in those fields who have tried to tease out what sort of “participations” exist and why. Although much of the research focuses on information systems development within organizations and frequently concern business users who have experience using technology, the work that considers intra-organizational projects does form a useful starting point for thinking about my question. Damodaran (1996), for example, established a useful relative measure of user inclusion by comparing the role of users in the design process across projects. She found that in practice, the degree of user inclusion exists on a continuum from informative through consultative to participative.

Symon and Clegg (2005) point out that the consensus within the literature is that user inclusion is “a good thing” and researchers tend to focus on “practical interventions,” yet there are differing “treatments” of participation resulting from differing “underlying theoretical perspectives” (p. 1142). In their study, they explored “different constructions of effectiveness in relation to participatory strategies” along with the social process of constructing who was a “real user” of the system (pp. 1147-1148).

Iivari (2006) also found that organizational culture plays an important role in user inclusion. He analyzed the contexts of several software product development organizations where usability professionals acted as representatives for the users in the design process. Unlike projects involving internal business systems, in a product development context, access to users is frequently mediated since making contact with users is difficult (politically tricky/expensive). He mentions that his case studies fall on the “informative or consultative” end of Damodaran’s user inclusion scale. Taking the view that both usability work and the organizational culture can be mutually constituted (pp. 642-643), he identified types of organizational culture and then their assumptions concerning usability work.

He explains that his study was limited to five case studies so “any conclusions about a suitable practice for introducing and carrying out usability work in organizations are premature” and suggests further studies in more varied contexts (p. 660). The particular context I’m interested in is ICT4dev so I’ve been collecting research in that context lately. Few studies examine the heterogeneous collection of organizations and communities that come together to work on development projects to increase equitable access to technology. (Pointers to research that focuses on designers — as opposed to the intended users — working in in an ICT4dev context are definitely welcome.)

  • Damodaran, L. (1996). User involvement in the systems design process - a practical guide for users. Behaviour & Information Technology, 15(6), 363-377.
  • Iivari, Netta. (2006). ‘representing the user’ in software development - a cultural analysis of usability work in the product development context. Interacting with Computers, 18(4), 635-664.
  • Oudshoorn, Nelly, Rommes, Els, & Stienstra, Marcelle. (2004). Configuring the user as everybody: Gender and design cultures in information and communication technologies. Science Technology Human Values, 29(1), 30-63.
  • Symon, Gillian, & Clegg, Chris. (2005). Constructing identity and participation during technological change. Human Relations, 58(9), 1141–1166.

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