Asking Questions That Matter: The Power of Participatory Design

This post is written for those who are familiar with participatory design but not necessarily sure of how to put it into practice, particularly in the setting of a cultural-heritage organization meeting. This is not an in-depth overview of participatory design. This post will feature discussion on the importance of participatory design, how it is used in large-scale vs. small-scale settings, and will provide example activities to use in order to try participatory design in small-scale meetings.


What is Participatory Design?

Participatory design is an approach in which designers involve community members who will be impacted by and/or eventually use a project/product to come together with the design team to help create said project/product in order to form a partnership that benefits both the designers and the community at large. Because participatory design calls for community involvement, it often elongates project time and can make things slightly more complicated. However, having community feedback makes an important impact on any project and allows it to grow in ways that it would be inhibited from if the project were being worked on by designers alone.


Why use Participatory Design?

Participatory design can be a terrifying concept. In theory, it can be amazing to gage with and involve the public in projects that you’re designing for them. That being said, it is understandable to worry:

What if they shut me down?

What if they don’t like my ideas?

These are very prevalent fears that many facilitators experience.

But participatory design is not about not fearing the public, it’s about engaging with them in spite of the fear of rejection. As a facilitator it is your job to figure out the problems that they want solved by asking as many questions as possible. More questions mean more answers. More answers mean more information. More information means better opportunity for understanding. And thus, creating a project that will both benefit and inspire the public.


Facilitating Large-Scale Participatory Design Meetings

So, what does a small coastal city do when 80% of it is wiped out in a massive earthquake/tsunami?


But how?

Does the city try to quickly rebuild everything fast and mediocre or do they build it slowly and well? And to that end, do they simply rebuild what was already there, or do they try to build something new?

These are the questions that were forced on the people of Constitución, a small Chilean city in February of 2010. The country was hit by an 8.8 Richter-scale earthquake followed by a tsunami that devastated the area and left many people wondering; how do we rebuild?

This question was left to Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena and his team at Elemental design studio. They were tasked with coming up with a new city plan in just 100 days.

Quickly, the design team realized they would need to include the public’s own resources if they wanted to rebuild, so to the public they went. The team built an open house—a building to hold public forum meetings and where people could vote on city issues—in Constitution’s main square. Upon holding public forums, the design team learned that the main question that they were asking, How to rebuild to prevent future tsunami damage? Was not the question on the people’s mind. As a result of this, the team had to be open to change and willing to alter the question that they were asking.


On this idea of using community involvement and participatory design to alter a facilitators plan or understanding of a project, Alejandro Aravena has said:

“…our belief was that if you understand participatory design as a way to identify the question, not as a way to get the answer, then you may be more efficient in how you allocate your resources and how you spend your response time for the reconstruction….by doing participation, instead of wasting our time or having answered the wrong question, we were more efficient in understanding where to go and what to do” (Hurley, 2019).

As it turns out, the people of Constitución were more concerned with the flooding that they endured yearly as well as their alarming lack of public space as opposed to tsunami’s that come around much less frequently. Adding these two new concerns to the mix created a whole new problem for the design team to solve. How do they abate tsunami damage, decrease flooding, and provide public space?

The answer, they found, was a forest. The designers proposed building a public forest along the coastline to act as a natural buffer between the city and the water. While they acknowledged that the forest may not prevent all flooding or tsunami damage, it would help decrease it, and it would provide public green space. Happily, the plan was approved by the city, and today the trees for Constitución’s new forest are currently growing.


Facilitating Small-Scale Participatory Design Meetings

While the example of Constitución is quite extraordinary and shows the positive impact that participatory design can have, it is important to remember that participatory design is not always done on such a grand scale or in such a high-stress situation.

Participatory design is often done on a much smaller scale, not on a city-wide stage but in small meeting with no more than 20 people working on a project that will probably not change the blueprint of an entire city.

But small-scale participatory design is still important and very valuable.

So, how does one conduct participatory design on a small-scale?

The simplest way is through group activities.

These activities may initially make you think of traumatic childhood icebreakers, but there are activities specifically designed to help in various meeting settings. In fact, there is a whole book filled with participatory design activities just waiting for you to read.

Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, James Macanufo, and Sunni Brown is all about creating a meeting environment that welcomes questions, comments, and concerns on project issues.

Every project is different, and so is every crowd. As such, every meeting can follow a similar formula such as: an opening activity and discussion followed by an exploratory activity and discussion, and then ending with a closing activity and discussion. However, if a meeting is short, a facilitator can simply pick one activity. Or, if in a normal length meeting the group seems to be responding really well to one particular activity, continue with that one for as long as possible, perhaps the whole meeting.

Participatory design is not an exact science. There are not strict rules or methods, so it is on the facilitator to see how things are going in the meeting and decide if the public is responding in the desired way. If not, the meeting must change. That could simply mean asking a different question or trying a different activity, but it is on the facilitator to lead the change.

Below you will find three example activities to use in a meeting setting:


  • The M&M Game

This exercise can be used in any type of meeting to get group members to discuss organization/project concerns. The questions asked in this exercise can be simple and fun or more serious depending on the meeting and group.


  • What you’ll need: A bowl, some type of candy that comes in multiple colors (*For sanitary purposes, it may be worth using candies that come individually wrapped such as Starbursts or Hershey Kisses).
  • Fill a bowl with candy and pass it around to the group. Ask each person to take a few pieces of candy, preferably all different colors. Once the bowl has been passed to everyone, explain that the colors of the candy correspond to different questions (Rosado, 2018).

For Meeting One:

  • Red: Are you a member of any other organizations like this?
  • Orange: What is something you wish you could change about your organization?
  • Green: What is your favorite thing about your organization?
  • Brown: When did you join your organization?
  • Purple: Why do you love your organization?

For Meeting Two:

  • Red: Do you feel as though we are on a clear path?
  • Orange: What do you think we still need to work on?
  • Blue: Is there anything that we did not get to discuss last meeting that you want to discuss today?
  • Green: Do you think these meetings are benefiting your organization?
  • Brown: What do you think our next step should be?
  • Purple: What did you find helpful about our last meeting?

For Meeting Three:

  • Red: Do you feel that we are close to accomplishing our goal?
  • Orange: Is there anything that we did not get to discuss last meeting that you want to discuss today?
  • Blue: What are the things that we have failed to accomplish thus far?
  • Green: What is your favorite thing that we have accomplished so far?
  • BrownWhat do you think your next steps should be?
  • Purple: Do you think your organization is better off now than it was before we started these meetings?
  • The great thing about this game is that it gets everyone talking. No one has the opportunity to be left out, everyone has to speak. This game is also valuable because it can be a bonding icebreaker and have superficial questions like “What’s your favorite color?” or it can be specific to the project that the meeting is for with questions like “Why do you feel so strongly about this particular project?”.


  • Challenge Cards

This exercise can be used in any kind of project/product development meeting. It requires group members to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of a product, which will lead to participants seeing the product from a new perspective and allow them to improve the product in ways they may otherwise have not thought of.


This exercise has been taken directly from Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, James Macanufo and Sunni Brown.


Object of Play: To identify and think through challenges, problems and potential pitfalls in a product, service or strategy.

Number of Players: Works best with small groups of 5-10.

How to Play:

Divide each group into two teams. One team, the “solution team” silently brainstorms features and strengths of the product or solution. The other team, the “challenge team” silently brainstorms potential problems or challenges and writes them on index cards, one problem or challenge per card.

When play commences, the two teams work together to tell a collaborative story. The challenge team picks a card from the deck and plays it on the table, describing a scene or event where the issue might realistically arise. The solution team must then pick a card from their deck that addresses the challenge. If they have a solution they get a point, and if they don’t have a solution the challenge team gets a point. The teams then work together to design a card that addresses that challenge. Play continues in this fashion, challenge followed by solution followed by challenge, and so on, until the story or scenario reaches a conclusion.

Strategy: The goal of this game is to improve a product or strategy by thinking through various scenarios and alternatives. By turning the exercise into a competition as well as a storytelling game, players are more likely to get engaged and immerse themselves in the scenarios. Keeping it lighthearted and fun will increase the energy. It shouldn’t feel like work (Gray, Macanufo & Brown, chapter 6).


  • $100 Test

This exercise can be used in any kind of product/project development meeting in order to determine a list of product features that will benefit users. This test requires group members to literally ‘put a price’ on what they believe should be worked on/included in the project.


This exercise has been taken directly from Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, James Macanufo and Sunni Brown.


Object of Play: In this method of prioritization, participants assign relative value to a list of items by spending an imaginary $100 together. By using the concept of cash, the exercise captures more attention and keeps participants more engaged than an arbitrary point or ranking system.

Number of Players: Small groups of 3–5 participants

Duration of Play: Medium; may take up to 1.5 hours for a group to decide how to spend its money and to reflect on outcomes, depending on the length of the list and size of the group

How to Play:

To set up the game, you will need a list of items to be prioritized, set up in a matrix with space reserved for the amount spent and reasoning why.

To begin the game, explain the challenge to the group: they have a collective $100 to spend on the list of items. The dollars represent importance of items, and they must decide as a group how to allocate the dollars across the list.

Give the group sufficient time to assign their values, and ask that they also write a brief explanation for the amount. It is possible that groups may bring up the literal cost or effort of items on the list; this may confuse the primary issue of importance and it may be best addressed as a separate discussion, or as its own $100 Test.

When the matrix is complete, ask the group to explain their decisions and reasoning. The matrix can then be used as a guidepost for future decision making on a project; specifically, what items are important and of higher priority than the others.

Strategy: This game is commonly used in software development for working with users to create their prioritized feature list. However, it can be applied in any situation where a “false scarcity” would help focus a group’s wants and needs. For example, an historical society polling community members about new education programs may use the $100 Test to uncover what options would be best received and why (Gray, Macanufo & Brown, chapter 7).


Is Participatory Design Worth It?



Although it may seem like a daunting task, participatory design is certainly worth the additional time and effort. The people who are going to be using/running your project once it has been designed should be involved in the design process as soon as possible.


As community partnership with private institutions becomes more prevalent, it is wise to look to participatory design as a way to make real community engagement. By sitting down and actually discussing community projects with community members, archivists, digital humanists, academic historians, public historians, and others have the ability to learn from and gage with the community to create projects that otherwise might have been thought impossible.


It is important to remember that facilitators and their institutions have just as much to learn from the community as the community has to learn from us. Participatory design is a way to make community engagement real. We may be the facilitators for helping these communities find their online voice, but it is their voices and their stories being told. So facilitate, listen, and most importantly, learn.


Works Cited:


Alejando Aravena: Tackles the reconstruction of a city through public participation posted on July 9, 2018.  Posed by Design Indaba.


Aravena, Alejandro. “My architectural philosophy? Bring the community into the process.” TED, last modified October 2014.


Briselli, Jen, Kimberly Dowd, and Olga Elizarova. “Participatory Design in Practice.” UX Magazine, last modified December 14, 2017.


Gray, Dave, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo. Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers. Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 2019. edition.


Hsieh, Tina. “8 tips for hosting your first participatory workshop.” Medium, last modified September 20, 2018.


Hurley, Amanda Kolson. “How an Architect Who Designs ‘Half-Houses’ Rebuilt a City.” Citylab, last modified on September 26, 2019.


Long, Gideon. “The rebuilding of Chile’s Constitución: how a ‘dead city’ was brought back to life.” The Guardian, last modified February 23, 2015.


Miranda, Carolina A. “Earthquake lessons: A Chilean city develops a new way of living with nature.” LA Times, last modified on June 6, 2015.


Rosado, Ryan. “9 Easy & Engaging Icebreakers for Meetings.” Govloop, last modified January 9, 2018.