Participatory design methods encourage community-driven problem-solving to help design creative solutions and invites disengaged employees into the creative process

Participatory design accelerates the problem-solving process by encouraging users to design “from the outside in.” According to the Harvard Business Review, inviting stakeholders, and disengaged employees to participate in design initiatives is a key element in a successful customer experience.

Participatory design methods are also linked to increased productivity and faster processes, as statistics show that investing in user experience during the design phase of a project reduces additional development cycles by 33 – 50%. This encourages and amplifies the creative voices in employees who may feel disengaged and invites them to be a part of the creative process.

In this article, we’ll explore how participatory design accelerates the problem-solving process as we discuss the following:

  • The Goal of Participatory Design
  • Benefits of Participatory Design
  • Types of Participatory Design
  • Building Connections Through Participatory Design
  • Applying Participatory Design Methods

The Goal of Participatory Design

In participatory design, the goal is to develop the most appropriate design that users benefit from the most. Participatory design methods place users at the center of one’s design. Ultimately, this approach aims to incorporate the end-user into the initial design process as users offer their ideas, opinions, and insights on a product, process, problem, or opportunity. 


Also known as consultative design, participatory design makes users an instrumental part of the design process. As an active participant, the end-user gets hands-on experience in shaping the design phase. The end-user may include clients, the community, team members from all levels in an organization, designers, collaborative partners, and others. During this process, users work to share their design ideas, resulting in deliverables such as notes, recordings, and artifacts.

Benefits For Employees and Users

The benefits of participatory design extend far beyond improved products or processes. Using participatory design methods allows for improved communication, safety, and engagement, resulting in a healthy and collaborative work environment. This allows for employees who feel left out of the process, disengaged, to be a part of the problem solving, and results in a community of practice.  

Consider the following additional advantages of participatory design

  • Team members are encouraged to take more initiative.

A participatory design process encourages all participants to take initiative, including disengaged employees. As each participant is an active contributor to the design process, they are likely to experience an increased sense of responsibility and ownership for their participation in the design phase. As a result, they are likely to act out of a sense of responsibility when an opportunity or problem arises.

  • Companies have a common framework for problem-solving.

Practicing a participatory approach will also help develop a framework for continued problem-solving. Participation results in improved team-building that encourages a core methodology and framework for future projects.

  • Team members enjoy more innovation.

More participants involved in the design process leads to increased innovation as each person offers a diverse perspective. This is key to engaging disengaged employees. This approach encourages cross-fertilization, resulting in breakthrough solutions. 

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  • Employees will experience a greater sense of commitment to their jobs.

As team members voice their opinions, they’ll experience a greater sense of commitment to seeing the project through to completion. As they shape the design phase to reflect their thoughts and opinions, they are more equipped to fulfill the project. 

  • Team members will develop actionable strategies and solutions. 

Participatory processes result in actionable strategies and solutions. This approach to strategizing is one of the most effective ways to address new problems and develop appropriate solutions.

Types of Participatory Design

While each company has its own approach to using participatory design as a problem-solving framework, three participatory design methods are commonly practiced:

  • User-centered design
  • Co-Design
  • User-generated design
  1. User-Centered Design

In user-centered design, employees focus on user needs while following an iterative process. Users strategize, create, plan, and implement their solutions. 

In this approach, participants either actively contribute to the design phase or manage the process by themselves. These users act as a key team of stakeholders that “own” the results. 

In a user-centered design approach, users may:

  • Chose the feel and look
  • Approve the content
  • Create the content
  • Decide on functionality
  1. Co-Design

In a participatory design process that favors co-designing, the end-user works alongside the team of employees to design a solution while the rest of the team takes on a supportive role.

In a co-design process, participants can learn the basics of design while all employees and team members ultimately practice a design-by-committee approach. When co-designing, the decision-making power is ultimately outside of the user, with the team relying heavily on user feedback to make the final call. 

  1. User-Generated Design

In a user-generated design process, the design is developed solely by the end-user. 

Participants are provided with user-friendly tools as they work to problem solve, improve a process, or improve a product. 

Building Connections

Participatory design methods build connections. This is imperative to change in the workplace and is necessary for encouragement for disengaged employees. Going beyond achieving deliverables, this approach forges real emotional connections between the end-user, team members, and the company. By inviting all stakeholders to participate in the design process, companies can forge lifelong partnerships with all involved.

Participatory design welcomes everyone to actively participate in community building. Inviting others into the design process helps to create an improved and committed company culture as well as a community of loyal users and potential clients. A workplace that champions a participatory approach will help to create an environment where all parties feel as though they belong. This sense of social connection and engagement is intrinsic to participatory design as it centers the needs of the group over the needs of one decision-maker.

Applying Methods For Change

Implementing participatory design methods will change your company for the better. It will allow disengaged employees to come into the fold of creativity, processes, and unleash your team by providing creative and effective solutions.

Start applying participatory design methods using the following ideas:

  • Journey maps
  • Lensed brainstorming
  • The “Magic Button”
  • Emotional connections 
  • Exploring initial concepts

1. Journey Maps 

Create journey maps of concepts, routines, and processes the user already understands. The end-user will then map out their experiences. This process includes pain points, challenges, areas for opportunity, and frustrations. 

This process may include drawing or storyboarding sessions where facilitators provide paper, pen, markers, or other materials. Journey maps help to avoid unnecessary iterations. 

2. Lensed Brainstorming

Use lensed brainstorming to generate ideas.

Customers use their “lenses” (words that represent ideas or concepts) to encourage problem-solving from a diverse perspective.

3. Magic Button

Introduce the “Magic Button” activity to create the best possible experience.

Users will imagine that the best possible experience will happen after a “magic button” is pressed. Their insights are used to inform the design process. This can be included with disengaged employees by allowing them to create their ideal experience with the process.

4. Emotional Connections

Identify and develop emotional connections between the end-user and specific ideas or concepts. Facilitators can encourage activities that help users navigate their emotions such as making a collage. This ties in with disengaged employees because as a leader, helping your team navigate their feelings will create a foundation of psychological safety, and encourage idea share.

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5. Exploring Initial Concepts

Facilitators will introduce co-design activities to help end-users explore initial concepts. Users offer valuable insights into the design phase. Participants can create sketches or prototypes to help the ideation process.

Participatory design methods go beyond the research and development stage. This approach gives team members effective and actionable ways to align their vision with the end-users. Moreover, the participatory process encourages engagement and collaboration that will likely result in improved morale and long-lasting relationships between all participants.

Interested in implementing participatory design methods in your workplace? Call today for a consultation and learn more about this approach to user-centered design. 

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