all research | inQuire »

Designing for Participation

The aim of my thesis was to open a discussion among designers about a new phenomenon in the process of making. The signs of this behavioral change are manifested in a special type of participation that occurs when individuals modify things in ways that extend the objects into unintended design spaces. These acts of modification become widespread and groups of individuals formalize to support ongoing efforts. The groups grow and the product of their efforts is exposed to the greater population, bringing in new members and allowing less savvy individuals to also participate. The large enterprises that are the original creators of these products take notice and respond. The result of this process as it repeats and grows is a movement that changes the process of making and the individuals who do the making.

May 2003 to May 2004
Masters Thesis Essay
School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University
Advisor: Craig Vogel

My analysis began with a series of activities that served as examples of an emerging behavior among consumers of certain products. The first are categorized as Hard-hacking and Soft-hacking because they are manifested in the changing of the form or function of an artifact. For Hard-hacking, the change occurs when someone forces change upon a physical artifact. For Soft-hacking, the change occurs in a digital form, such as changing or enhancing a software program.

The second, Group Assembly, occurs when ad-hoc gatherings or coordinated actions by groups of people occur utilizing technology originally intended to enable one-on-one communication with known individuals, such as text messaging or telephony on cell phones. In many cases, the individuals gathering do not know each other. These occur in the form of Flash Mobs, Smart Mobs, or ad hoc performance art performed by groups such as the Merry Pranksters and the Cacophony Society.

The third activity, Self-declaration, is enabled through the systems and media that allow individuals to express themselves, those that were traditionally for exclusive use by writers and broadcasters. Where high costs may have been a primary reason for the prohibitive nature of these systems and media, they are now within reach and the technology capability is present. The creation of blogging software and Wiki’s are examples enabled through technology, but even graffiti is a form of this type of self-declaration that has existed independent of recent technological developments.

Systematic Engagement, the fourth activity, exists in the form of platforms that enable and encourage this adaptive behavior, but it is more rare. These platforms are comprised of a set of fundamental guiding principles established and structured to enable an individual to systematically engage in creating or modifying a product. It allows for these types of changes to occur without the need for the time, money, or intellectual application typically required to develop a product. The best example of this activity is the Open Source software development movement.

To make sense of these activities, I offered a set of concepts that surround this existence of participation in the world. This ontology comprises five themes that tie together the relationships between the different types of participation. Conversation—Individuals interact with things in a more meaningful way, extending them beyond the utility for which they were created and into new design spaces. Community—Common behaviors among these individuals motivate them to come together and become adapting enterprises with the purpose of sharing knowledge and resources. Accessibility—The collective activities and products of adapting enterprises extend beyond the communal borders and into the broader public. Symmetry—The originating enterprises take notice of the activities of adapting enterprises and are forced to respond. Phase Transition—New ways of thinking emerge to address the new behaviors and interactions between originating and adapting enterprises, blurring the lines between the two.