Design as Participation (Beyond User-Centered Design)

In this long essay, published in MIT’s brand new Journal of Design and Science, Kevin Slavin argues that designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are, he says, hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems.

These are designers that do not understand themselves to be in the center of the system. Rather, they understand themselves to be participants, shaping the systems that interact with other forces, ideas, events and other designers.

This essay is Slavin’s exploration of what it means to participate.

In other words, it explores what it means to design adaptive systems in a user-centered design world:

When designers center around the user, where do the needs and desires of the other actors in the system go? The interventions obscure the view of the ecosystem they affect. […]

The user made perfect sense in the context in which it was originally defined: Human-Computer Interaction. UCD emphasized the practical and experiential aspects of the person at the keyboard, as opposed to the complex code and engineering behind it.
But we are no longer just using computers. We are using computers to use the world. The obscured and complex code and engineering now engages with people, resources, civics, communities and ecosystems. Should designers continue to privilege users above all others in the system? What would it mean to design for participants instead? For all the participants? [My emphasis]