Participatory design and the future of interaction design

From UX Collective:

Few months back I got an opportunity to visit Jatan Sansthan in Udaipur as part of a workshop mentored by Dr Naveen Bagalkot. Jatan is a not-for profit organization working with rural and resource poor communities in the state of Rajasthan. Jatan has designed and implemented various initiatives geared towards improving social and demographic indicators by working with youth groups.

Being a part of Jatan Sansthan gave me a chance to see a world far away from the busy roads of Bangalore. A world that is well connected with nature, rich in culture and tradition. Every ‘thing’ that caught my eye had a story to tell, from the black tyre hanging outside the house to the tractor that carried us during the field visits. All these ‘things’ were not just mere objects but rather ‘Things’ which were socio-material assemblies as mentioned in Design things and Design Thinking by Erling Björgvinsson and Pelle Ehn.

Jatan Sansthan in Udaipur

The Role of Culture and Non-Universality of Design.

The interconnections of culture, the impact of design and the outcomes were very evident during the initial days in Jatan. Lakshmi Murthyji, one of the founder members of Jatan, took us through some examples of symbols and imagery which failed to communicate their intent to the audience. Her findings on how the design has to be communicated by taking into consideration the local norms and culture made me wonder how certain design theories and principles which are supposed to be ‘universal’ fail terribly when placed in the context of people who don’t understand that universal language of design at all. I feel that it is our responsibility as designers to rather localize the design and promote inclusion of such people rather than intimidate them with the colonized design concepts.

“Inclusion should be such that the benefit of the formation of design concepts, prototypes and implementation originates and ends with the groups involved, especially the most vulnerable group members”.

The imbalance created in the society can only be eliminated if all sectors, all genders raise their voices and contribute equally. For that to happen inclusion and provocation are indispensable and the role of designers is huge to bring that vision to reality.

The Key to Empowerment through Aspirations.

In Appadurai’s ‘Capacity to Aspire’ , he mentions that the “aspirations are not an individual thing, they are always tied to a social setting and culture. Aspirations are also connected to the cultural capacity”. My aspirations and imaginations are influenced a lot by the social setting that I come from and the exposure that I have received over the years. Imagining an alternative design, or speculating about a future world is not an uphill task for me.So, Aspirations and Imaginations happened easily to people — that was my assumption until I started working with the Jatan youth. Jyothi my team member from Jatan did not use a mobile phone and she did not aspire for one but she wished to learn fashion designing just because it would help her earn a living through stitching. This was not surprising as she belonged to a social setting that imposed barriers on her aspirations and she had unknowingly fallen prey to the societal norms.

The boys in the Jatan team were more open and shared their opinions without any hesitations. But the girls were hesitant, some were worried and some reserved. During our field visits I came across many ancient houses with very small hole like windows that were the only means through which the women in the house used to gaze at the world outside. When the influence of society and culture has been so powerful and deep rooted since ages, how do we break those mental barriers people have knowingly or unknowingly imposed on their minds? How to remove the blindfold and show them a world of aspirations and opportunities? It’s difficult, It is not possible to achieve it in a day or two. For people like Jyothi and Anjana who have hardly imagined a life outside their homes in the present, how to make them aspire of a future free of restrictions, free of shame and taboos? This was the challenge that we encountered during the hackathon held at Jatan.

Jugaad, Innovation and Problem Solving.

The concept of ‘capacity’ and concept of ‘capability ‘ are different . When I talked about the need to increase the capacity to aspire, it did not mean that there is a dearth of capability to imagine, solve and create. In the villages of Udaipur, I noticed all the different things that have been imagined, used and re-used in many different ways, either to satisfy the superstitious beliefs like the tyres hanged in front of the houses or to aid in everyday activities like the cloth used as sieve to make tea or the tractor that was designed to serve local purposes.

The idea of Jugaad and innovation indicates that people irrespective of the place and community have the innate capability to think beyond norms and break the traditional ways of doing something. People in a particular community know their social structures better, they are capable of designing and problem solving. But It need not be that the capability will give rise to something fruitful if not used appropriately. That is when we need design tools to help them think and design facilitators who don’t jump in to solve problems but rather let go of the control and make the people their co-designers.

“Designers and Researchers ought to create processes that enable respectful dialogue and relational interactions such that everyone is able to contribute their expertise equally to the process of designing and those contributions are properly recognized and remunerated”.

Design facilitation, Participatory Design and Decolonization

This was a major learning phase for me. Design is not just about finding solutions to problems. It is a tool to think, critique or facilitate. But taking a step back, letting go of the control as a designer was not easy. I had to constantly curb my tendency to solve the problem. I had to make sure that the solutions came from my Jatan team mates Jyothi and Anjana. When the learned theories failed in actual a new kind of designer surfaced in me who spontaneously made strategies and vigorously tried out various tools to facilitate Jyothi and Anjana to break their mental barriers.

My team worked out numerous ways to make them think like role plays, scenarios, sketching, videos, making etc. We got an idea of what worked for them and what did not, what triggered their thoughts and how to do that. Though the process was slow in the beginning, it was good to see them catch up by the end of the workshop. It was just a matter of time, day by day they showed progress in their imagination, thoughts and ideas. The initial response of Jyothi and Anjana “We can’t do this, You do this”, turned to “Yes, we will do this, we can do this” in the end which I believe was a good achievement for our team. Then it dawned upon me that there was a need for decolonization of design processes and participatory design should definitely be a way to do it.

Lots of learning, lots of fun,. Taking brisk walks on the roads along the vast stretches of greenery, Interacting with the locals, the wonderful heritage walks and field visits, working with the Jatan youngsters, Meeting Lakshmiji and her team of driven and enthusiastic people, the Udaipur visit was an enriching journey. Though the level of impact of the one week workshop on the Jatan youth cannot be measured, I am sure that they have taken back home all the learnings that will definitely come to their aid in the long run and we have come back to Bangalore as better design thinkers with many insights,and a lot more probing questions. True empowerment is when the power to solve is given to the individual Like Elizbeth Tunstall said

“Designing with empathy is not just enough. But acceptance of worth of everything, treating everything with dignity and acting with compassion is important”.

Participatory design and the future of interaction design was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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