Monday, February 23, 2009

What Do You Need to Make the Argument for Participatory Design?

As many of you know, I’m writing a book about participatory design for museums. I’m using a wiki to do so, and a few intrepid generous folks have signed up to give feedback on the evolving draft. Over the last week, there’s been a lively discussion on the wiki about the key audiences and goal of the book, and I wanted to open that up to you (and you are, of course, welcome to join the wiki and help).

The book is intended to be a practical guide to participatory museum experiences focused on design strategies, case studies, and activities. I believe that demystifying participatory design and encouraging professionals to try it is the most important step towards its evolution as a museum practice. I presume most people who read the book will be practitioners who are already on some level interested in participatory design and are looking for useful design frameworks, techniques, and examples to develop and refine their practice.

However, I know that that leaves out the majority of museum professionals who are not aware of or sold on participatory design. The WHY of participatory design is really important. But I have two challenges dealing with it:
  1. I don’t want to bore readers who are already convinced and are ready for action. I want them to get good, meaty techniques, not just more inspirational talk. The more time spent on “sweeping institutional change,” the less energy is left to do the experiments that incrementally make that change happen.
  2. I’m not sure that those who are unconvinced would pick up the book, and if they did, what would convince them. I don’t think participatory design is THE way for every museum, but I hope it can become a way that many will consider.
And there’s a third reason. I’m nervous that I don’t know how to give you the arguments you need. I live in a bubble of people who are already interested in participatory design. They’re the ones who read this blog, hire me, and inspire me. The result is that I spend very little time fighting the battles and living with the related frustration, and I don’t know what you need to succeed and survive.

Unfortunately, I do know there’s no silver bullet on the WHY of participatory design. This work is experimental enough in museums that there aren’t many robust evaluations to use as the basis for argument. There are many good and useful translations of Web-based design patterns, but in the museum world, this is still an emerging practice. There are some self-described “success stories,” but most rest on anecdotal perception of success. And then there’s the problem of finding the right metrics for evaluation. Participatory design often opens up dramatically different opportunities, audiences, and activities for museums, and it’s hard to evaluate the value of those outcomes relative to standard museum making. If you’ve never successfully attracted teenagers before and now they are coming and participating, how much is that worth? How do you compare it to your traditional activities?

I’m going to try, in the process of writing this book, to learn more about and work on evaluative techniques for participatory design. In the meantime, here are the primary WHY arguments I feel confident making:
  1. Participatory design can help museums match the demands of an increasingly empowered culture in which people expect to spend less time consuming and more time creating and discussing. We’ve known for a long time that visitors “make their own meaning.” Participatory design gives us a way to support and integrate that meaning-making into the larger museum experience.
  2. Participatory design can help museums deliver on the oft-repeated but rarely demonstrated desire for museums to become essential civic spaces, social environments that encourage the democratic process. The “cultural town square” is more likely to come out of the models of the social Web than the city hall meetings you don’t attend.
  3. Participatory design can bring in new audiences from the “creative leisure class” of adults 18-40 without children. These are people who are highly engaged in cultural activities, but are doing so through non-museum venues like Maker Faire, Burning Man, blogs, activist groups, knitting circles, coffee shops, and online communities. Most of these venues are event- or Web-based and their users are in need of open, flexible locations in which to express and share their interests.
  4. Participatory design can convert "underserved" audiences who do not feel welcome in museums into passionate advocates and partners. This only happens when the participatory model involves deep connection with these audiences in an ongoing relationship, but it is notable and significant.
  5. Participatory design is supported by a new staff/business model in which the museum brokers ongoing relationships rather than supplying fixed experiences. While this new model may prove more expensive in operation, it is more flexible and low-cost on the experience development/capital side.
  6. In a sociological climate that values personal perspective and relativism, participatory design platforms can serve as an engine for intelligent, well-designed multi-vocal exhibits and programs. Note that institutional subject matter affects the extent to which perspective is valued; your opinion on the history of your tribe is more likely to be engaged than your opinion on the history of the universe.
Each of these arguments comes with robust museum-based and external case studies and design frameworks. Each has counter-arguments—that visitors want designed experiences, that museums should stick to what they know, that young adult audiences aren’t our core, that we shouldn't coddle people who don't come already, that new business models are risky, that relativism is BS. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t want to convince people that participatory design is the only way to go, just that if offers new options. And for a museum director who sees her institution's goals in the points above, it may be a design practice worth investigating.

But is that enough? Is it weak to rest on, “if your mission includes X, then you should consider participatory design as a way to achieve those goals?” I can’t offer anyone double-digit attendance or donation increases, but I’m not idealistic enough to suggest that we throw those metrics out the window. What would you want from an argument for participatory design in the context of a book like this? What do you need me to say, and what can you teach me to help me say it?

8 comments, add yours!:

Alli said...

After reading your introduction on the wiki, I have a much firmer understanding of the "what" of participatory design.

In terms of audience, my thoughts center around not the degree to which the reader supports the underlying concept of participatory design, but rather what "museum" you are speaking to when you are talking about it.

Perhaps, you are struggling with delineating arguments for participatory design because you are talking in such general terms about "museums." It would be difficult to do in a simple way, but if you could cater your argument to the missions of specific types of museums. For example: science museums, art museums, children's museums, history museums, etc.

Maria Mortati said...

Alli, I agree with you, but it's hard to be so tight with an idea that applies across the spectrum. Perhaps Nina could have case studies in different museums to give a sense of what types of things work best in what types of environments?

Nina, as I think I said earlier- the folks that would buy the book or would be better sold on the idea would do so because there IS a book. So devoting at least a chapter to the Why is important.

Another way to handle it is with a Why Not? approach. Or you could make the "why" data part of an on-going sidebar in your book. Kind of like the comments on a blog.... yeah...

Matt said...

Why do you need a "Why" section at all? If you were writing a book on, say, diorama design, would you include a long section on why you should make dioramas? Describe the work that you and others have done, show the outcomes, and discuss what you've learned. People will see the value in that more than in an abstract argument about why you should design exhibits in one way or another.

Nina Simon said...

I tend to agree with you. But many folks on the wiki expressed a desire for that argument. So I'm trying to figure out how to make it as succinct and useful as possible in the context of what is otherwise a book on design.

My favorite non-fiction books are unapologetically specific about their content. For example, my fav design book is Understanding Comics. McCloud made me love comics because of HIS love, not because of his argument.

So I'm really grappling with how to make this work.

Unknown said...


I absolutely agree that you should include a chapter, or perhaps an introduction, dedicated to the "why" question. This is a non-traditional model that many of the initiated will accept intuitively, but outlining the significance of the model explicitly would be a great assistance. If not in convincing those of us who are already on board, then in providing them with arguments to convince other members of their organization who are less familiar or open (directors, boards, etc.)

Now onto the "why". While the reasons you provide are all excellent ones, perhaps they do not go far enough. I recently came across Marta Kagan's presentation on Social Media Marketing in which she makes a very convincing argument that advertisers must recognize and participate in the social mediaverse, as it is the future of the web. Many of her points, such as a younger-shifting demographic and their preference for social online experiences apply equally to museums. If you pair that with the ratio of online to in-person museum visitation, you get an increasingly online audience with highly participatory expectations. Without fear-mongering, I think its safe to say that museums cannot afford to ignore these trends and expect to stay relevant into the future. Any museum that says that their mission does not align with a need to be participatory is, IMHO, missing the boat.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for your comment - I know you are working with lots of museums and are probably familiar with the hesitancy/opportunity here.

I'm deliberately not writing much about social media usage by museums in the book, but I will use it as a strong model for the "whys" of physical design. Many of the "whys" of social media engagement have to do with going where the people are, joining their conversation--or suffering the silence of non-participation. I think that's a tougher sell in real space, but definitely a useful analog. What is the "cost" of not engaging in conversations with visitors on the floor? There are many studies that show that interaction with a staff member has the single greatest impact on a visitor's museum experience--I should be tying that kind of research into this. Thanks!

tina blaine said...


Regarding one of the primary WHY arguments that you say you feel confident making:

I think your characterization of the “creative leisure class” in argument #3 is perhaps a bit slanted toward a younger demographic than some of the activities you suggest this demographic enjoys actually attracts. There are many people “over 40” who could also qualify as being part of the creative leisure class. In addition to those that don’t have kids who are over 40, there is also a growing population of “empty nesters” that have the time, interest and financial where-with-all to engage in a variety of cultural activities, be they in the black rock desert or elsewhere. There are quite a number of people well beyond their 40’s who are involved in events like the Maker Faire and/or make the annual trek to burning man. I can't say that I know anyone who is part of a knitting circle...

Nina Simon said...

Excellent point. I recently talked with an archivist who adamantly expressed his preference for engaging boomers - as he put it, they are a generation of experience seekers looking for something meaningful to be part of. As they start to retire (or not given their 401k situation), he wants museums to fill the void and be the place where they contribute.