Theoretical background for contextualizing User Agency in Participatory Processes

By | April 12, 2021

Scandinavian participatory design practices are not distinguished by particular methods but rather by political commitments to societal concerns and relationships with participating users and communities. Pelle Ehn writes:`In the interest of emancipation, we deliberately made the choice of siding with workers and their organisations, supporting the development of their resources for a change towards democracy at work…'[1993, p.47]. ~ Judith Gregory (2003)

While the evolutionary trajectory of the Scandinavian tradition and approach has emerged from the formal economy’s work places, and the concerns of labour rather than owner/managers; I do not think it a stretch to extrapolate the fundamental values and underpinning philosophy that distinguishes it from other design traditions to the context and conditions of the operating environment of the informal trade ecosystem, as mapped and studied in east Africa.

The concerns of emancipation and agency are rather more critical than less in these focus areas. Questions may arise on whether the informal market woman or vegetable vendor in Nairobi’s slums experiences the same oppression that labour did from management – the original drivers for Scandinavian researchers in their development of the basics of their design and research practices. After all, is she not the free agent of her own trade?

The easy answer is that a moment’s reflection will show that perhaps her oppression is vastly different but not dissimilar in the nature of its ability to disempower and take away decisionmaking and choice in the course of her efforts to improve not the quality of her working conditions but also the quality of life. And, that her expertise in her own experience has never been recognized, nor her fulltime occupation as a sourcer and supplier of fresh produce.

From the perspective of the Scandinavian tradition (Bodker & Kyng, 2018) I am clearly embracing its first principles by choosing to side with her rights to recognition and agency, in my role of designer and researcher. It is from this position that I will now explore further the role of agency of the participant in the process, and how to contextualize the literature for the vastly different operating environment in which I implemented my own project last year.

Gregory’s articulation (2003) is a powerful starting point for reflecting on the appropriateness and relevance of this lens for what is customarily labeled development work primarily due to its location and/or the relative wealth of the target audience. She states clearly:

“Scandinavian participatory design approaches emphasise change and development, not only technological change and systems development, but change and development of people, organisations, and practices, occurring in changing socio-historical contexts.”

While the rest of her explication in this section is as relevant and thus powerful, the only weakness in this line of argument for my own purpose regarding the Remote Resilience project is the underlying assumption that the designers are still present, and will use the information gathered even during the democratic participatory processes of imagining change and better futures with the users to formally manifest in tangible form some outcome. This aspect of tangible artefact design is one of the original drivers for the Scandinavian tradition’s birth, as Bodker and Kyng state in their 2018 paper “Participatory design that matters—Facing the big issues” and, their concerns in PD’s evolution and application areas must be covered if I’m to proceed further with this line of thought, viz.,

…we discuss the low technological ambitions that we find permeate current projects and hampers the potentials for substantial, long term benefits for the participating users and the groups they represent.

In my defense, I have approached this entire thought exercise from the perspective of a practitioner, first and foremost, with thirty years of experience in introducing novel technologies in developing world contexts via a variety of roles – from sales of CAD workstations (1990), to new product introductions for Hewlett Packard in the mid 1990s for India’s newly liberalized markets, transitioning into multidisciplinary approaches to concept design of smartphone apps (2016;2017) leveraging blockchain technology (2019), and innovation planning frameworks for mobile money (2018) based on groundbreaking research on the prepaid business model’s adoption triggering exponential growth of mobile telephony (2008) among rural low income populations in the Phillippines, India, and Malawi (2009).

It is now, almost 15 years after my first lower income demographic study from the technological innovation and design perspective, that I seek to extend the values and philosophy inherent in the Scandinavian participatory design approach to a socio-technical system that has organically evolved and grown among the informal sector in countries such as Kenya – recognized globally as leaders in transformative mobile service innovation (Barrett, Davidson, Prabhu and Vargo, 2015; Masiero, 2013). Bodker and Kyng’s (2018) key issue with the lack of ambition in technological development trajectories may well be moot in light of the current scenario in the African context, and until we can reframe these challenges in a viable and feasible manner that can lead to desirable outcomes, we’ll still be wandering around trying to 4D with whatever comes to hand. They state:

With our background in computing, we find it surprising how current PD research can be about anything, including processes without a technological focus at all. We seem to have lost the anchoring of PD in IT projects (see also [50]). As a matter of fact, many current projects seem to focus on maker technologies (e.g.[6]) which may, or may not have much connection to IT as such: Neither 3D-printing nor singular Arduino boards, in our perspective, address the potential development of software under the control of users. In addition, these projects rarely question the tools available and there seems to be no real concern for the long-term learning of users regarding digital thinking and digital/software possibilities in a democratic perspective with a few exceptions such as [48]. This is problematic because it results in a lack of influence on our common technological future.

The irony inherent in considering this lack of ambition only in context of the formal economies of the highly industrialized world is that the invisible and the underserved continue to lack influence on what should be our common technological future, relegated as they are to deserving recipients of charitable good works in development focused design. Only when we are able to recognize the ambition and agency of the ‘marginalized and vulnerable’ as agents of their own development and build for them tools that leverage all the cognitive power of design and innovation methodology – for sensemaking, for problem framing, for horizon scanning, for scenario planning, and for visualizing and grasping the nature of the chaotic challenges that permeate their operating environment – can we proceed to the design and development of digital solutions that clearly address their own needs in their own context rather than that filtered through the lens of the Global North’s long established frameworks and taxonomy.

My project began with questioning the lack of such tools available for this target audience. And with the lack of rapidly grasped means for long-term learning by participants characterized by incomplete primary schooling, literacy and language barriers, and invisibility to the knowledge economy. One full session in the sequential workshop series focused on the topic of digitalization, the contactless economy emerging due to the constraints of the pandemic, and the easy availability of mobile money and basic telephony afforded to the average Kenyan. It is virtually impossible to be Kenyan today without knowledge of digital value exchange afforded by Mpesa.

In order for us to proceed to the next step of ambitious technological design directions and product development, we must begin with the necessary frameworks on which to ground the research and development process. And, here is where the Scandinavian tradition and its firmly established values meets the needs of people left long without a voice, or considered only as passive users whose data must be harvested for commercial exploitation in the guise of user centered design.

Only by accepting this first premise can we proceed to the next step which is the recognition of the participant’s agency – regardless of their geography, education level, literacy, or occupation – and begin to consider the impact of changing the locus of decisionmaking as well as the role played by remote facilitation, via digital means, of such a participatory design research project and its outcomes.



Barrett, M., Davidson, E., Prabhu, J., Vargo, S., (2015). Service Innovation in the Digital Age: Key Contributions and Future Directions. MIS Quarterly. 39. 135-15

Bhan, N. (2009). Understanding BoP household financial management through exploratory design research in rural Philippines and India – Insights to help improve success rate of business models and payment plans for irregular income streams, The iBoP Asia Project/IDRC

Bødker, S., & Kyng, M. (2018). Participatory design that matters—Facing the big issues. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 25(1), 1-31.

Gregory, J. (2003). Scandinavian approaches to participatory design. International Journal of Engineering Education, 19(1), 62-74

Masiero, S., (2013). Innovation and Best Practice in Mobile Technologies for Development, London School of Economics Policy Note

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