Special topic: HCI in the Arab world

XXVI.3 May - June 2019
Page: 50
Digital Citation

What is participation? Emerging challenges for participatory design in globalized conditions

Max Krüger, Ana Duarte, Anne Weibert, Konstantin Aal, Reem Talhouk, Oussama Metatla

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At its very core, participatory design (PD) is concerned with issues of power [1]. Since PD’s earliest applications, the aim has been to make voices heard and provide agency through participation in the design of technological artifacts, infrastructures, and processes. But participation does not happen by itself, and what participation means differs from time to time, place to place, and culture to culture. It needs to be actively constructed and adapted to the present conditions. To do this, PD practitioners must be mindful of the existing power relations not just between participants and the rest of the world, but also between those within the participant group and between participants and facilitators [2].


The conditions in which PD takes place are not the same as those of Scandinavia in the late 1970s. As a recent Interactions feature has pointed out [3], the political, economic, and technological climate has changed significantly, so PD practitioners need to reimagine their craft—especially in light of today’s increasingly globalized conditions. As PD travels around the globe, issues of power become more complicated. Facilitators and participants may not be from the same place and therefore may not share an understanding of participation, may have different preferences, and may not be aware of cultural, political, or structural obstacles that exist in a specific context. Particularly when facilitators come from historically privileged parts of the world and the participants are from the Global South, notions of the postcolonial become crucial [4]. In such situations, the specific existing power relations might be an obstacle to true participation. Facilitators and their research approaches may represent colonial structures and are likely entrenched in what can be considered the dominant regime [5], whereas participants are likely to be outside of it. Participation therefore is hard work, and to make it happen is a difficult process.

back to top  Insights


In this article we want to highlight three PD projects in which issues of power and the post-colonial came to the fore. Over these three cases, we provide examples of how these issues can play out and how we attempted to address challenges to participation posed by postcolonial conditions, power imbalances, and cultural diversity.

back to top  Case 1: Postcolonial Conditions

The valley we chose to work with is located in the Moroccan High Atlas Mountains, about 80 km away from the closest city. It is divided into six smaller villages and has around 10,000 inhabitants, with most households making a living from agriculture and pastoralism. Since the mid-2000s, important infrastructural improvements and development have taken place. Households in the main villages recently gained access to running water and electricity. In addition, a big telecommunications company built a set of telephone poles that now provide an LTE network all over the valley.

The aim of our project was to set up a space, a computer club, that provides access to computers to explore this technology and Internet connectivity in a creative, hands-on manner. We employed a participatory approach to the design of the computer club from the start. We wanted to ensure that our joint intervention was aligned with the wishes and needs of the inhabitants, who had little or no experience with ICT, and to embed it into the community and its practices. During our stay, questions arose about power dynamics between us and the inhabitants, the postcolonial conditions we were working in, and the exchange of knowledge between us and the possible future tutors of the space. The first two issues were especially important to take seriously from the beginning. The community was acutely aware of the problems of postcolonial conditions: As far back as the classical period, the area was the target of Phoenician, Roman, Vandal, and Arab conquests, before falling to European colonization during the 18th and 19th centuries. They complained to us that in more recent times the village had negative experiences with other initiatives that came from the outside, which were often carried out without consulting or even informing the local population.

These specific conditions posed serious challenges for our project: As foreign researchers who were providing technology and knowledge to the valley, we were given preferential treatment and were promised that everything would be done as we’d like (during the stay, but also in establishing the computer club). We also controlled access to financial resources to employ two tutors.

To balance out these power differences, we tried to establish an equal-footed partnership with local actors from the start. One local NGO was particularly relevant, as it had already built up a lot of trust within the community over the previous years. At least one member of each family is part of this organization, jointly deciding on the NGO’s activities, such as installing water pipes or bus stops. This cooperation proved crucial for the development of the project from the beginning, as the NGO mediated between us and the larger community: They communicated with the various stakeholders in the valley to build trust in the club, found tutors to guide the participants, identified projects that might be of interest, and located a suitable and accessible spot for the space, which ultimately led to increased ownership over the club by the village’s inhabitants. To build deeper trust and personal relationships within the community, one German member of the research team learned the local language and spent a year in the village, which was planned at the beginning of the project. The trust and relationships he and the community built together also helped to alleviate some of the power imbalances. He became a mediator and confidant, to whom also criticism and questions could be expressed. Over time the community talked to him about their concerns regarding the project’s financial issues, the training of the tutors, the influence of the Internet on participants, and possible negative consequences of the project.

To balance out power differences, we tried to establish an equal-footed partnership with local actors from the start.

Nowadays the computer club is successfully established and gets daily visits. This was possible only because we involved local partners from the beginning, built trust by becoming part of the community, and overall took the local partners seriously as experts of their own lives. Collaboration and participation are ongoing, as the community is currently deciding on activities for the coming years.

Konstantin Aal

back to top  Case 2: Losing Power

Refugees in the Arab region are a marginalized community without a voice in local and national decision-making processes, nor within the humanitarian aid system. This is exacerbated by Arab states’ not providing any form of citizenship or residency to Syrian refugees in order to encourage future repatriation. Despite the aid system increasingly in place, refugee communities remain the largest silent stakeholder within this system. Therefore, I wanted to adopt a participatory action research approach and use PD methods. I didn’t stop to question whether taking such a research approach was possible within the context of Syrian refugees in Lebanon or whether the communities I was working with would see value in such an approach.

When conducting my initial engagements with Syrian refugee communities in Lebanon [6,7], I encountered several challenges that made me question the extent to which I could adopt a participatory approach in my research.

Initially I viewed my participants within the refugee community as one stakeholder group that I could bring closer to other stakeholders within the aid system through PD methods. However, over time, as I engaged with the women in the community, I realized it was naive to think that the community’s aims for participation and the outcomes they expected were homogeneous. Indeed, I came to realize that before engaging in PD methods to bring the voice of refugees to other stakeholders, PD methods should first be used to understand and work with the intra-community politics. For example, while exploring experiences of refugee food insecurity, methods were tailored to understand not only their interactions with external actors but also their interactions among themselves to address food insecurity and their motivations within such interactions.

The second challenge encountered with participants was their lack of motivation to take on active roles within participatory projects that go beyond just providing information. Through further conversations with participants, I discovered that this lack of motivation is rooted in the inherent lack of agency experienced by refugees. Participants highlighted a disbelief that their voices could be heard by other stakeholders. Additionally, they recounted how they are struggling with managing their day-to-day survival to the point that they felt taking on more responsibilities would burden them. They said actions to enhance the infrastructure of the settlement were the responsibility of humanitarian organizations.

Such factors highlighted the difficulty in adopting PD methods as envisioned by Western scholars, leading me to adapt methods so that I became a mediator in bringing forth refugee voices. By actively taking the political stance of empowering refugees, the role of disseminating the research conducted with participants to actors within the humanitarian system became more important. Such an approach entails a series of steps to validate data collected with participants, and also working with participants to co-design advocacy artifacts to be used in dissemination. When working with such marginalized communities, we as researchers need to take on more responsibility as active stakeholders in projects, even if this is not always sustainable.

Reem Talhouk

back to top  Case 3: Intercultural Issues and Discrimination

Migrants in Germany face the difficult task of navigating excessive bureaucracy to find suitable language classes, get access to professional education, and find work. In order to alleviate these challenges, we engaged in a PD project to build a suite of digital tools to inform migrants about options and connect them with appropriate support. In this project we work with migrants from all over the globe but predominantly from the Arab world, as well as with German volunteers and professionals to jointly design the platform. The researchers and facilitators are German. We meet weekly to discuss issues related to the platform and to design together but also to write, play music, and eat ice cream. The mix of cultures, religions, and historical relations among the actors provides for rich discussions fueled by the different experiences each individual brings to our conversations.

This diversity also provides challenges for participation: A lack of detailed knowledge by the German facilitators about the participants’ contexts and cultural, political, and historical origins hindered the attendance of some in particular instances. At one meeting, a participant played a song he had composed about his home, Kurdistan. The music was shared via our WhatsApp group chat, where another participant made a derogatory remark about the content of the song praising Kurdistan. The comment was made in Arabic and elicited no reply from the group; therefore it escaped the facilitators’ attention. But it did not escape the participants’ attention: A Kurdish participant stopped attending the meetings. When we inquired, he shared what happened. At the next meeting, we raised the issue to discuss experiences of discrimination and prejudice and how we wanted to deal with them as a group.


This was not the only instance where the heterogeneity of the participant group and the internal politics that result hindered participation. At other times, the specific hierarchies between German facilitators and participants, as members of the host country, and migrants, as those trying to become members of that country, emerged during our conversations. Volunteers, who were part of the participant group, relied on the concepts of migrants or refugees to distinguish themselves and to know who they were supporting, and referred to non-German participants as such. The participants with a history of migration or refugee experiences at one point mentioned how tiresome it is to be called refugees, when what they are trying to do is to overcome this experience and transcend the perception as being different.

The two examples show how the diversity of the participant group itself becomes a challenge for participation: Even though the respective groups are different, both cases illustrate how political disagreement and implicit power imbalances can make the participation of others seem unwelcome. The first example in particular was exacerbated by our lack of awareness of certain divides and the consequences they might have, as well as our lack of Arab language skills. Our response was to create a space where such implicit obstacles could be made explicit, discussed, and addressed as a group. The example also shows the necessity of facilitators being attuned to the sensitivities of participants. At the same time, it is questionable that facilitators can be neutral and sensitive to the needs of their participants, perhaps especially in very diverse constellations.

Max Krüger and Anne Weibert

back to top  Conclusion

These three cases show the diverse situations that participatory approaches face in globalized, intercultural, and postcolonial conditions when also dealing with ensuing power imbalances. The cases presented here were impacted by several factors. Some examples related to the participants’ prior experiences of the loss or gain of agency and sense of power, or to the actual extent of their participation on the definition of the research objectives and setup. Furthermore, the experiences presented motivated us to reflect on some challenging and sensitive questions, such as: What understanding of participation do we all bring to the project, and do we share the same understandings? Does everyone have time to participate? Who does and who does not? Under which conditions can and will people speak their mind? Who needs to be there; who needs to be absent? And to what extent do these create a hierarchy of participation?

As PD practitioners, we must be mindful of these initial questions, as well as of the needs and conditions we ourselves bring to the activities, and how and whether these conditions and decisions we made before engaging in a project can be altered throughout the process. The use of PD strategies not only to design, but also to create conditions for understanding sensitivities and to build a common language among all persons involved becomes a relevant and delicate matter to explore. Otherwise, we could fall into the trap of offering only partial or even tokenistic participation. The difficulties recounted here attempt to be a critical reflection on PD practices on the ground. However, we still need to explore further proper means to address them, because the consequence of not doing so can deeply limit the actual participation of all actors: Our participants might not actually be participating.

back to top  References

1. Bratteteig, T. and Wagner, I. Disentangling power and decision-making in participatory design. Proc. of the 12th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers-Volume 1. ACM, New York, 2012, 41–50.

2. Bustamante Duarte, A.M., Brendel, N., Degbelo, A., and Kray, C. Participatory design and participatory research: An HCI case study with young forced migrants. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 25, 1 (Feb. 2018), Article 3; https://doi.org/10.1145/3145472

3. Bannon, L., Bardzell, J., and Bødker, S. Reimagining participatory design. Interactions 26, 1 (Jan.–Feb. 2018), 26–32; https://doi.org/10.1145/3292015

4. Mainsah, H. and Morrison, A. Participatory design through a cultural lens: Insights from postcolonial theory. Proc. of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Short Papers, Industry Cases, Workshop Descriptions, Doctoral Consortium papers, and Keynote abstracts-Volume 2. ACM, New York, 2014, 83–86.

5. Björgvinsson, E. Managing collaborative critique in times of financialisation capitalism. Parse Journal Issue #5 Management 5 (2017), 91–111; http://parsejournal.com/content/uploads/8_PARSE-Issue-5_Management_Managing-Collaborative-Critique-in-Times-of-Financialisation-Capitalism.pdf

6. Talhouk, R., Bartindale, T., Montague, K., Mesmar, S., Akik, C., Ghassani, A., Najem, M., Ghattas, H., Olivier, P., and Balaam, M. Implications of synchronous IVR radio on Syrian refugee health and community dynamics. Proc. of the 8th International Conference on Communities and Technologies. ACM, New York, 2017, 193–202; https://doi.org/10.1145/3083671.3083690

7. Talhouk, R., Mesmar, S., Thieme, A., Balaam, M., Olivier, R., Akik, C., and Ghattas, H. Syrian refugees and digital health in Lebanon: Opportunities for improving antenatal health. Proc. of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2016, 331–342; https://doi.org/10.1145/2858036.2858331

back to top  Authors

Max Krüger is a research assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Siegen. His research focuses on participatory design, especially of IT systems around issues of migration and arriving. He is also interested in how methods of technology creation are created and adapted in different cultural contexts. maximilian.krueger@uni-siegen.de

Ana Bustamante Duarte recently completed her Ph.D. at the Institute for Geoinformatics at the University of Münster, Germany. Her work focuses on exploring participatory design and research for the design of mobile geospatial services to support newcomers arriving and (re) settling in urban centers. bustamante@uni-muenster.de

Anne Weibert is a Ph.D. student and research assistant at the Institute for Information Systems and New Media, University of Siegen. Her interest is in computer-based collaborative project work and inherent processes of technology appropriation, intercultural learning, and community building. anne.weibert@uni-siegen.de

Konstantin Aal is a research assistant and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Business Informatics and New Media of the University of Siegen. His research focuses on the use of social media during the Arab Spring, facilitating human-animal relations in Botswana, and access to technology in rural Morocco. konstantin.aal@uni-siegen.de

Reem Talhouk is a doctoral trainee at Newcastle University. Her research centers on how technologies contribute to community resilience among marginalized communities, primarily refugees, in the Arab region. She works with refugee communities to co-design technologies that enhance their food security and access to primary healthcare. r.r.talhouk2@newcastle.ac.uk

Oussama Metatla is an EPSRC research fellow and principal investigator at the University of Bristol. His vocation is to explore and demonstrate how HCI can contribute to building a more inclusive society. He is currently interested in supporting inclusive interaction between people through co-designing multisensory and crossmodal interactive systems. o.metatla@bristol.ac.uk

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