Participatory Techniques

What do we mean by participatory approaches? Are we talking about more than a range of ‘creative’ methods that get users actively involved? Or is there a lot more to it than that?

Have you ever been concerned that despite using creative research tools, users are still telling you what they think you want to hear?

In this workshop, Kate Smith shared 25 years of experience of participatory approaches from the popular education and community development sector, where she has adopted them in a range of social, health, education, environmental projects throughout the world.

Kate’s workshop involved a series of practical participatory technique exercises and some discussion of the principles of participatory techniques.

In her first exercise, she introduced participants to a fictional, successful UX professional called Alex. She asked participants to picture themselves meeting Alex for coffee. What do they look like? How do they greet you? How do they talk to you? If Alex invited you to their workplace, what would that place look like? 

Participants were asked to sketch Alex in the middle of an A3 sheet of paper, then write or draw ideas around Alex to brainstorm what makes Alex a successful and professional satisfied UX professional.  Next, participants worked in pairs. Partner A showed their drawing to Partner B and shared their story of Alex. Partner B had to use good listening and allow Partner A to talk before using some open, probing questions. Kate suggested using questions like: “Tell me more about…”, “Could you give an example of…?”, and reflexive listening, i.e. “You mentioned that Alex had… can you tell me a bit more?”.

This activity gave participants a taster of what Kate calls a ‘visualisation technique’ that she has used with children in a health setting. Using a third person to identify what the young person thinks makes a healthy and happy person.

Kate defines participatory techniques as a family of creative methods and tools to enable users to share and reflect on their experiences from their perspective and from that point to design and plan change.  This includes methods such as:

  • Scoring and prioritising
  • Drawing and diagramming
  • Daily timelines
  • Mapping physical space
  • Mapping communication
  • A project journey

Kate explained how these techniques can be used creatively using visual aids and sketching. This makes these techniques suitable for use with young children and non-literate people all over the world to help bring out different perspectives on an issue.

The characteristics of a participatory technique include moving away from verbal communication to visual communication to facilitate people who are not as verbally dexterous taking part. 

Kate shared some of the key lessons she learned whilst developing and using these techniques. She identified ‘handing over’ the objects of power as a key aspect of a successful participatory technique.  She also noted that training users as participatory researchers is really important: your role should be a subordinate role to these users so they can take ownership of the process.

Kate emphasised the importance of resisting when clients want a list of questions you are going to ask/bombard your users with.  You should ask what the client wants to find out, and then develop techniques that will allow you to find that out.

In other practical advice, Kate advised using beans when scoring, rather than sticky dots – as this allows people to change their mind. Keep things moveable, active and alive so that people feel they can change things.

To embody this, Kate ran a second activity. She provided a table of objects and asked participants to find an object that symbolises one of the key challenges for UX professionals adopting participatory techniques, then share their reasoning with others at their table. These were placed in a row, then each participant had three beans that they could use to distribute to identify the issue they felt was the most significant.

To conclude, Kate emphasised that a lot of this boils down to power. How much power do we have? How much power is in the room? How do we hand over power? When people have their own voice and make their own decisions you really do get innovative change.

About Kate

Specialising in participatory evaluation and research, Kate brings over 25 years of consultancy, project management, facilitation and training experience in the International Social Development sector. 

In 17 countries worldwide, including the UK, she’s worked with numerous marginalised, ethnic and minority groups and a wide range of organisations (Voluntary Sector, International Donors, UN agencies, Governmental Organisations, International and grassroots NGO’s.)