Metoder Niels Hendricks, Pieter Duysburgh & Karin Sleger

Participatory design with impaired users

Niels Hendricks, Pieter Duysburgh & Karin Sleger


Niels Hendriks is a researcher at the Social Spaces|CUO Research Group. Pieter Duysburgh is a researcher working on user-centered design at the iMinds-SMIT research group. Karin Slegers is a senior researcher at CUO | Social Spaces.

Participatory design has a strong connection with how technology could be used to empower the users of the technology. But how do you take into account users that have impairment that hampers their interaction with researchers and designers?

On a ridiculously sunny August Sunday in Roskilde, we brought together a group of unacquainted researchers to think about involving users in the design process. Not just any user, but users that share a specific characteristic: they have an impairment that hampers their interaction with researchers and designers. This makes it more difficult to take into account their perspective when designing new technology or services.

It was the first day of the Participatory Design Conference, a biannual gathering to examine the relationship between technology and its users, trying to influence that relationship for the benefit of the latter. Participatory design historically has strong connections with grassroots movements and is concerned with how technology could be used to empower the users of the technology. As a consequence, the conference pays a lot of attention to how users can be involved in the development of new technology to better meet their needs. As such, participatory design can be seen as both a methodological approach and an ideological stance.

Our reason to bereave the participants of our workshop of the sunshine mainly touched upon the methodological perspective. We organized a workshop with the overly long title ‘participatory design for users with impairments affecting cognitive or communicative skills’, in order to explore the methodological challenge that comes with working with this group of targeted users. Cognitive and communicatively impaired users pose a similar difficulty for designers or researchers working with them: if letting users participate in the design process is done to make sure the technology or service under development better meet their expectations and needs, how can this then be achieved with targeted users whose personal expression is (often quite radically) interfered by their impairment?

Of course, this question we wanted to unite people for did not just fall from the sky. We had been wondering about this for quite some time. As researchers or designers involved in user-centered design, we had at various times run into this problem. Two of us for instance had a project for developing assistive software for struggling young readers, in which they tried to work with deaf or dyslectic children to understand how texts can be enriched to facilitate their reading. Similarly, three others had worked with people with dementia, developing applications that increase their quality of life. All of us faced this challenge of how to involve these impaired users in the design process. Surely we were not the only one thinking about this? And surely we could learn from others struggling with the same difficulties?

Once the workshop was announced, it quickly (and reassuringly) became clear that indeed others had also been chewing over this. As organizers, we wanted the participants to interact with each other as much as possible. What other reasons are there to attend a conference if not interaction? We wanted the workshop to be more than just a series of presentations and thus we thought up a method (which we have not yet named) for letting our participants discuss their ways of working and let them try to consider how their way of working could inspire others in their research.

In our experience, a way of working to involve targeted users in a research process is always made-to-measure. No method or strategy suits all, the details of a research approach always need to be fine-tuned according to the research questions, the characteristics of the users, the project resources, time constraints etc. When working with target groups with impairments, the specificities of the users particularly determined the fine-tuning of the methods. Keeping this in mind, we did hope not to end the workshop with a list of guidelines. Rather, we aimed at developing ‘take home messages’: small practical tips or considerations that might help researchers and designers in determining the approach. We ended up with 24 of such ‘take home messages’.

We look back on this day in Roskilde as a success. Of course, we are blowing our own horn here, but the positive evaluation we received from our participants afterwards seems to confirm our subjective and personal assessment. The take home messages (which can be found on our wiki) might seem somewhat unspectacular at first, but good research does not need to be spectacular. Rather, this (obviously non-exhaustive) list might serve as an aid to help researchers in similar projects and give them a starting point in sculpting their method. Equally important for the success of the workshop, was the opportunity it gave the participants to meet other researchers struggling with the same issues they struggle with, and giving them an instrument to exchange experiences and think together about solutions. Especially this latter point was much appreciated by the participants.

As organizers, we hope that the workshop might be the starting point of a community of design researchers working with users with cognitive or communicative impairments. We will further work on the guidelines, and ‘validate’ them with other researchers working with users with cognitive or communicative impairments. We have submitted a proposal to repeat the workshop on the CHI conference next year in Paris and we are also working on a special issue of CoDesign with the very same focus. Currently, we are already exchanging and gathering our experiences on our wiki. The wiki also contains more details, and the outcomes, of the workshop given at the Participatory Design Conference. Take a look, and do not hesitate to participate yourself and discuss or add your own insights.

– by Pieter Duysburgh, Karin Slegers & Niels Hendriks

Pieter Duysburgh is a researcher working on user-centered design at the iMinds-SMIT research group, part of the Free University of Brussels (VUB). He is mostly working on interdisciplinary IT development projects in the field of education and healthcare. Methodologically, he is particularly interested in qualitative user-centered methods such as cocreation and ideation techniques.

Karin Slegers is a senior researcher at CUO | Social Spaces (KU Leuven/iMinds). She works on user research related to ICT applications, mainly in the domains of health, disabilities and education. In addition she is interested in research methods in the areas of user-centered design and participatory design.

Niels Hendriks is a researcher at the Social Spaces|CUO Research Group (LUCA – KULeuven). Niels’ interest domains are user empowerment & agency, participatory design and eHealth. During the last years he has worked in research projects together with different industry players, cultural organisations & the social profit/health sector.