Designers might describe what they do as designing, but more often than not, it’s more facilitating. The modern design process calls for participation not only from team members but also from internal stakeholders, users, and even people not using our products but affected by it.

A group of beaver shapes in a modern kitchen, digital art, generated with DiffusionBee
A group of beaver shapes in a modern kitchen, digital art, generated with DiffusionBee

☕ Facilitating participatory design

I often describe the main style of working for designers as facilitating or driving, in contrast to designing. What this means is designers shouldn’t do it alone, creating products is a team effort.

It’s not practical for them to absorb every piece of important information themselves. At the minimum product managers would know more about the business and market, while engineers would know more about the capabilities of the current system and what’s feasible to add. The image of a genius designer figuring out everything alone is a myth when it comes to actually delivering products.

This also goes beyond the immediate product team. Other stakeholders’ perspectives from the commercial teams (like marketing or sales) need to be included, as people from outside the company such as users.

Everyone’s input adds to the design process in various ways, and to make this effective, proper facilitation is needed, hence the designer’s role expanding from the more immediate details of production work. So a designer facilitating the design process goes beyond the design team, beyond the product team, beyond the company, and even beyond the users. Each of these steps is a way to level up one’s approach to creating products.

Including users and other outside stakeholders in the process is usually called participatory design. However, I like to think inviting anyone into a design process should be a call for participation and not only a vague request for feedback or approval.

But obviously, the most important invitation should be extended to users. If the difference between art and design is having an objective intention, the difference between a design process not having or having users invited is surely practicality. Being user-centered goes beyond simple moral concerns, it’s the most viable and practical way to create successful products.

What’s great is that in many ways the ideals of participatory design are fused into modern UX approaches. It’s getting rare to question if input is needed from stakeholders or users. But it remains a challenge how to involve others in our process.

One challenge is that other disciplines and most people are not trained in design, and even after years of working on software problems and with designers, might not have the language to articulate a design rationale.

This is where facilitating comes in. It helps designers inquire the right way, interpret the answer, and enrich their creative process.

I also like to call this working style facilitation, as participatory design is almost always done through workshops. While every type of workshop needs some facilitation, the broader the range of included people, the more thoughtful facilitation matters.

There is also a balance to be kept in how far we are reaching out to include people. Going beyond the design team is table stakes, every designer should be closely working with their partners from product and engineering. Reaching beyond the product team (like other orgs) might require more knowledge of the internal political landscape. Bringing in users might be challenging logistics. Going beyond the immediate users is rarely understood as valuable - but it’s something we as designers should do more often to understand the impact of our design work.

Participatory design is not only a way to enrich the design process, it’s also a strategy to make the approach more user-centered. With users in the room and the process, it’s harder to ignore their needs and helps us to keep them in the focus.

🥤 To recap

  • Designers should choose collaboration over solitary work, involving diverse stakeholders from within and outside their org.
  • Participatory design, facilitated by designers, integrates input from various teams and users to enhance product outcomes.
  • Facilitation is crucial in navigating input from non-designers, enriching the creative process, and ensuring user needs are addressed.
  • Despite challenges, such as understanding internal dynamics and involving non-designers, participatory design remains key for creating user-centered products.

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🍪 Things to snack on

Participatory design: Everything you need to know about it and how to use it by Ines Anić and Vibor Cipan is a good overview on the topic and has a lot of useful tips on how to include users into the process, including detailed steps to run such a session.


Maddie Brown’s article, How and Why to Include Users in UX Workshops shows how users can be invited into already established types of workshops the design team most probably is already doing. Having users in critical parts of the design process, such as a design studio or critique ensures the focus remains on the users.


Participation can be a useful tool in research too. Nikki Anderson writes about this in Come Together: Reasons to Include Participatory Design in Your Research Process, starting with matching participatory research to the right research goals (creating journeys, understanding emotional responses, connections, and exploring concepts). The article has tips for each of these, with some additional notes on how to prepare for these sessions.


A mix between user research and visioning, Envision Future Products with Participatory Visioning Research by Jaclyn Suzuki is an interesting method. Usually research, so direct user input precedes the visioning activities, as a vision is as much internal looking as it’s forward-looking. Involving users in later parts of the process might shift this focus more onto users.


Loved the detailed walkthrough on doing a participatory design workshop by Jennifer Davidson, Meridel Walkington, Emanuela Damiani and Philip Walmsley, Reflections on a co-design workshop. Things like participant selection, working with them before and after the workshop, or establishing ground rules and roles, are all important learnings that are also useful to do for less diverse sessions.


Four cool short case studies with some methods detail how things were done in Participatory Design in Practice by Olga Elizarova and Kimberly Dowd.