Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 114, April 2013

User or Used - Some Dilemmas of Participatory Design

The “user-centred” perspective on design has been a dominant paradigm over the last decades. From this perspective the user is in focus, through the emphasis on function, ergonomics, interaction or universal inclusion, rather than the artistic ego of the designer. It has become common for designers to work with user studies, ethnographies or focus groups to come closer to the needs, demands and desires of users and consumers. Most often the “user” is quite easily found or defined as it is the person which engages with the gadget, holds it and activates it or using the service as a consumer. 

But when we start working with more abstract service systems, with more agents, stakeholders, users and interests, it is getting complicated. The “user” in a tax-financed health care service is simultaneously the doctor, nurse, patient and bureaucrat – and taxpayer. With tax-users also come voices from voters, politicians and lobbyists.
It gets even more complex when we start working with other designer roles, such as “facilitators” working with participatory design and empowerment. When we take on to include and educate people and facilitate their design processes towards emancipation we must ask, who is really the user, and perhaps more importantly, who is being used?

This question highlights one of the central problems of design, and especially practices which are meant to “empower”. The division of labour of design almost automatically seems to withdraw the possibility for the client to solve their own problem. There is common, as any division of labour are constituted this way. I go to the doctor because I do not get well by myself. I call the plumber because I cannot fix the pipe. But none of these professions are explicitly there to “empower” me, which much participatory design today explicitly aims to do. The exchange is usually under contract and paid for, so we can decide if the service is fair.

Today’s complex “user-centred” systems don’t have such transparency and easily traced and valued exchanges. The users are the supposed beneficiaries, but they can also end up being used without really knowing it. The user may be engaged in an exploitative relationship, but may not notice it due to the information asymmetry.

One such case of information asymmetry is Google’s “gmail”. It is great and very user-friendly, and it is free! But at the same time I have no idea how Google is using my data and for what end. Most probably Google has good use of my data, or all our data. But I will never know, as they will never tell me. I can never know if our exchange of services is fair.

Well, you may argue, we are always a game piece in someone else’s game. We all have a part to play, and all social relations are based on some sort of exchange with different levels of reciprocity, of loyalty, solidarity, honour, skills, friendship, or money. But in most personal relations we know what we give and what we get. When engaging with larger and more complex systems this becomes more abstract, I may think I am engaging with the main user, but the money and assignments may come from another agent, and with another agenda. The game pieces are mixed and as a designer I may deal with the wrong problem and user, and come to use people in an unethical way.

Our experiences of participation and systemic design in the West differs a lot from the settings of developing economies. In the lack of sustainable institutions and predictable bureaucracy, social organization follows other models. Loyalty and power structures of families, clans and religious communities clash with development NGOs, banks and aid agencies, all with their agenda, and clashes with formal and informal economies, structures and networks.

Especially in socially engaged design we must ask ourselves, who is using the user in my participatory design process? How do I avoid making my participants become hostages in my project where they act as “human shields” and become excuses for my bad design? I can always defend my results with claiming “this is what the users wanted”, but it doesn’t cover the exploitative project I just made. I earned my salary and return safely to my home, but they ended up with a worse life situation.

Take for example a development project where I am engaged in teaching local crafts people skills so they can start small businesses and make a living. Not only does my presence as designer change the local power balance, I may also be paying some of my collaborators, thus adding money in what can locally be seen as “the wrong hands”. As I bypass local traditions of hierarchy and organization, I may disrupt loyalties and identities that can be hard to repair and where I can not help. As I “facilitate” or “amplify” local ideas, my aid may undermine local capacities and the more I help the more I disrupt and disempower. And when I go home again, such “aid shocks” may actually destroy more local capabilities than the initiatives I tried to support.

So when we work with social development and empowerment, we must ask –“in service of whom?” When I help a local artisan we must ask – who does the craftsman work for, the cleaner wash for, and the entrepreneur sell to? What structural problems does my intervention act in or even amplify?

Take for example a microcredit or craft education program, common emancipatory practices in socially engaged design. They do nothing to change the structural conditions that creates poverty, but may rather shifts the burden of poverty to the backs of the poor. The women who get the microcredits may become trapped in debt as the men takes the money, thus amplifying patriarchal oppression. In a similar vein, what type of labour is amplified through my craft teaching? Most probably it will grow the informal sector, which usually consists of women or children doing backbreaking piecework at home: weaving, sewing, doing small-scale assembly. This kind of domestic industriousness is based on long hours for very poor pay with no legal protection and also in hazardous or poisonous conditions. My craft workshop may actually end up poisoning people and entrap them in exploitative domestic relationships. So how are we to avoid this? At least we must learn to see the structural patterns around us, follow the power and money, and find the users and the used. The problems will not go away if we just close our eyes and “be good”.
We must start to ask a series of questions;

  • Who are the users or stakeholders? What is in their interest?
  • Who is the client? What is in their interest?
  • Who do you/they report to? What is in their interest?
  • Who is included and who is excluded?
  • What are the structural and institutional frameworks around this action?
  • Who is offered power, and who is it withdrawn from? How is power, relations of loyalty and commitments, redistributed?
  • Who earns in the end? What do they gain?
  • How do you guarantee reimbursement/compensation? (for example compensating participants in a community garden for the gentrification it produces)

So how does your participatory project navigate these settings? How can a participatory process reveal the informal power structures and bring about transitional justice and reconciliation? How can we be more caring of our users and make sure they are not ending up “used”? If we are all engaged in a “social economy” where social bonds and relations are reified into commodities, where networks and contacts have real value, is really participation as “free” as we think?

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