Designing Participation

I couldn’t help but make a comparison of Friere’s pedagogical strategy with the tenets of participatory design. They appear similarly inspired with participatory design emerging from failings in the product development paradigms for reasons akin to Friere’s explanation of why previous education plans have failed: because they focused on personal views of the implementer and did not take into account the “situation” of those who were receiving the product/education. They both try to address this by incorporating the user/oppressed in the design process in order to produce a service that is more relevant to those they are serving.

However, I am sure Freire would point to gaping holes in the current participatory design model with respect to its ability to target people’s needs. For the user is not part of the conversation throughout the entire development process. In the formative stages, the target population is observed and can provide input to designers but the idea formation portion, where concepts and values are synthesized, is performed only by the design team. Users have little to say in how the products actually get implemented and then are only presented with limited choices in the prototyping and iteration phases where the solution has been narrowly defined.

The lack of inclusion in the synthesis and design phases may feed Friere’s thoughts that the oppressors (the designers) have “a lack of confidence in the peoples ability to think, to want, and to know.” That prejudice affects their ability to truly bring about a change that can liberate the oppressed, such as produce a technological intervention relevant to their values. There is no true solidarity between the designers and users in this case since the potential users are not taking an active role throughout the entire creative process.

Creation is at the core of Friere’s values for freedom as it makes people active participants and forces them to question their situation fully. A “permanent dialogue” is required which most participatory design processes fail to deliver, only restarting the dialog at stages along the way. Thus, Friere would consider the participatory process as oppressive as it acts as a barrier to an individual’s ability to pursue a truth and a projection of themselves that is generated from their own reflection. True praxis cannot be achieved and the road to empowerment and liberation is blocked.

For participatory design to facilitate praxis, more than the process but the role of the designer (oppressor) would have to change. From one in control to one in complete solidarity with the user by integrating into the their “situation” – not just a designer for the user, but become the user themselves. This would entail more than just eating your own dog food, but breaking bread with and as a user. What would this look like?