More than a User: Implementing Participatory Research Methods in UX

By Marc Lorenc

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      Last year during the EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) 2019 keynote speech by Sareeta Amrute, various researchers grappled with the idea of tech colonialism and the need for decolonizing research. Comparing the tech industry to the colonialism of the latter half of the past millennium, Amrute and others explored a number of concerns and issues present with current technological expansion, specifically calling attention to how big data is extracted, curated, transacted, and utilized for varying ends, and the potential consequences they bring. As companies strive to be more socially responsible and make a difference in the world, they will need to adopt new methods and approaches that curtail the challenges outlined above. Building off this insight, this post explores how UX research can tackle the challenges of tech colonialism by adopting Participatory Action Research (PAR) methods in their project design. As such, it is not meant to be an exhaustive overview but rather the beginning of a conversation concerning how we can shift the ways we conduct research and the broader impacts it can have on users.

       What do I mean when I say “More than a user”? Coming from a background in anthropology, a discipline that views humans holistically, I am trained to think of the myriad number of factors that shape a person’s daily experience. As such, I pull from a variety of qualitative research methods that tease out these complexities. In recent years, as the discipline increasingly grapples with its colonial legacy, many practitioners began utilizing approaches that question the traditional power dynamics of field research in hopes of generating more ground-up, self-determined insights in ethically responsible ways. While these methods have trickled into the social and behavioral sciences, its application in UX Research is still nascent. This may be in part due to the top-down process associated in typical design research (e.g. the researcher empathizes, defines, ideates, prototypes, and tests a product with a user, followed by repeated rounds of iteration until a final product is produced). In this current set-up, the research process is user-centered but not user-centric. This distinction is notable because  fruitful avenues of discovery are being left out of the research process by not bringing the user into the design of the study itself. What if we as researchers brought people into the research process itself, working towards a research agenda that truly centers the user and their concerns, needs, and experience. How might this shift provide insights that help solve some of the challenges facing our clients? What would UX research look like in this configuration and where do we even start? 

     The shift towards a participatory approach to user research starts with us reflecting on our role as researchers and how our work affects the people we come into contact with. This first step can be called a reflective practice. Through this process we question the broader impacts of research, forcing us to consider the implications of our projects on the very people we study while also opening potential avenues of discovery and exploration that we may have missed in scoping the project. This is in part because a reflective practice necessitates us to question our relationship to the people we study, especially how we refer to them within the scope of a research project. Are they a user? A participant? A collaborator? An informant? An interlocutor?

      If we subscribe to a weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis* then what we choose to call someone has long-reaching effects on how we see and interact with them. For instance, by calling someone a participant we ultimately delineate the line between the researcher and the one being researched. As a participant, you are only taking part in the research process, providing answers to research questions, not shaping them. While the project may be user-centered, it is not user-centric. On the other hand, using a term like collaborator calls attention to how insights are cultivated co-constitutively between interviewers and interviewees. In this configuration, the user is part of the research process, and by extension, the project is more user-centric. 

      While this may seem like semantics, this reframing highlights the very difference between how we view users in a research project and why it should be taken seriously. While ‘user’ may be a quick shorthand way to describe who we are researching in relation to the design process, it is important to see them as more. They can be a parent, a student, a person struggling to make ends meet (and that’s just the first person), all of which matter when we try to empathetically understand them. Part of the issue is that we lose the broader context and social pressures that motivate and move people when we use the term participant. While the recent surge of ethnographic research in UX seeks to build this context, it is often still performed under the parameters of researcher and researched. Often this is rationalized as a process that will ultimately benefit the user in the long run by providing better UIs and UX. But what if we transferred our user centric approach to the research design itself? What potential new ideas and insights may be generated if the project design itself was user-centric? What questions and concerns may emerge that we as researchers never considered?

Participatory Action Research

      In recent years, various fields in the social sciences and public health have begun incorporating participatory methodologies, sometimes known as Participatory Action Research (PAR) or Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR). As a decolonizing methodology, participatory research reverses the top-down hierarchy of traditional research design in hopes of creating a more inclusive, collaborative partnership between researcher and researched. While participatory methods have begun to trickle into UX research with a number of authors exploring the rich potential of incorporating participatory methods through participatory design, this approach does not need to be limited to the design process itself. In fact, its central tenets can be extended to various different UX research methods, refocusing the researcher and participant relationship towards a more collaborative study design. This occurs by bringing the participant into the study design process itself, inviting users to shape the direction of the project with their questions, experiences, and concerns. Participatory Research Methods such as photovoice, participatory mapping, and digital storytelling are particularly adept at achieving such ends, bringing collaborators into the research process as co-creators of knowledge, telling and analyzing their own stories rather than researchers selectively interpreting them. In this way, collaborators come to shape the study in a manner that shifts the way a research question is conceptualized and how a broader problem is understood and addressed.

     Participatory research therefore inverts the traditional, top down approach of researcher studying the participant, to one where the questions and focus of a project are fundamentally changed to reflect participant concerns and realities. It gives users the ability to shape the research questions and direction of a project to speak to actual experiences, often uncovering fruitful avenues of exploration/ inquiry that can be missed in traditional top-down research development. Additionally, because user’s are shaping the project, they develop a sense of “skin in the game” that leads to better participation and more insightful deliverables. By bringing users into the research study design itself, we can ensure that projects are user-centric, speaking to the issues that truly affect their broader experiences. The inversion of the research design is therefore a key distinction for UX Researchers who want to empathetically understand the people they are working with while diminishing some of the tech colonialism concerns outlined in this post. 

     For Part 2-5 of this series, I will dive deeper into how this approach can be incorporated into UX research projects. Specifically, I will explore various participatory methods that UX researchers can incorporate into their toolkit, including consensus-based planning (part 2),  photovoice (part 3), digital storytelling (part 4), and participatory mapping (part 5).


*In a nutshell, it argues that language, particularly the words and meanings we associate with them, in part, shapes the way we think about and interact with the world around us. Words thereby frame and limit possibilities.


READ MORE: The Power of User Culture Immersion, User-Centered Design, The Social Experience of Digital Reality Use, Should Researchers and Designers Sign Their Own Hippocratic Oath?, Facial Recognition Technology and Racial Biases