Since we are constantly evolving, the business goals changing and technology expanding, are we shifting away from the main principles in design philosophy? Who are we designing for?

In this article, I will be covering the following topics:

  • Design history Recap
  • User Centered Design
  • Design Thinking
  • Participatory Design
  • Co-design

How it all began

This ‘way of making things’ was born with the Industrial Revolution back in the 18’s. In a way to boost productivity, the factories realized they needed to organize the whole work processes to be able to produce more with less effort. 

The processes were usually defined by senior or talented workers that were chosen from the production process due to their experience and skills to manage other employees (POERSCHKE, 2013).

Later on, they had to start thinking about the whole experience and impact that a product would have on customers so that they could deliver the same service to the entire world. At that time, there was no such thing as structured methodologies to guide and standardize the development of new and incredible products, but those skilled workers were able to do it — and they did.

Due to their experience in engineering and industrial design, the first design methodologies were almost nothing concerned about the context in which the products would be delivered and were also very inflexible. Truth is, they were created by engineers to engineers after all (VASCONCELOS, 2009).

Oh, here it is!

The years came by and with the constant need for industries to respond and adapt to the people’s demand, these methodologies have been adapting while users gained a voice, along the design process. Today while shape, function, and usability continue to be the core pillars (SANDERS, 2002), other recent aspects are treated as fundamental elements to maintain the design process, such as the experience with the product or service, the emotions created, the values added, the users’ needs or even dreams.

Notably, designers are frequently closer to the users they design for and companies have been open to solutions based on the user’s needs, in the past few decades. You may be thinking: “Ok, since the solutions are made for these people, they probably have an active voice and presence on the whole process”, well, I have bad news for you: They don’t. At least not as much as they should have.

With that said, let’s take a look at some methodologies that became popular in the past decades:

User Centered Design

In this approach, researchers observe and interview users whose task is to perform predefined cases using products or services, so it is possible to study and understand their experiences (VREDENBURG et al., 2002). 

The process is mainly focused on what is being designed and the result is based on the interaction between the researcher and the designer — and they are presented as two different professionals but still interdependent. Users are only heard through the researcher.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking, a term proposed by Tim Brown (2008), also brings a design approach focused on the users, in which research is done by innovative processes with a market perspective. Design Thinking can also be understood as an approach that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to meet the users’ needs with a doable product concept, creating business opportunities (BROWN, 2008). Consequently, diverse and divergent thinking is used to expand the variety of solutions and boost creativity in the project.

Even with the focus on the customer, this approach still interprets the user as a separate role and keeps it away from the process, serving almost exclusively for data collection.

What’s going on?

In the past decades, we’ve been experiencing more and more twists in the design environment. There has been an urge for new and fresh design approaches, where designers can work among and along with the final user and redefine their roles in the process.

User Participation Evolution 

Participatory Design (PD)

This approach’s main principle is that the user can be placed as a real partner on the design process’s initial phases — defining requirements, ideating, and creating the concept along with the designer. This methodology differs from the others because it gives the user a presence and role as a participant, not just as a data source (SANDERS, ELIZA- BETH, 2008; SANCHES; FRANKEL, 2010).

With that in mind, PD has a very strong community aspect when it comes to the way research is done. It is as much about design (artifact production) as it is about research, the design is research. In this methodology, ethnographic methods during the earlier stages are always present, which allows the emergent design to be a direct result of a close, iterative, and continuous construction with the end-users.

As a relatively new and dynamic methodology, PD can (and should) be presented with many different phases during the project’s development. The most popular ones are Exploration, Discovery, and Prototyping (SPINUZZI, 2005).

Co-design (CD)

Co-design is a popular and established approach in the creative field. It’s often used as a generic term meaning “co-creation” and is, in its veins, about open design, which reinforces its roots in the original participatory techniques. It reflects an interesting twist in the designer-user relationship since it usually counts with a large number of people making contributions and having a voice in the mission of resolving a problem.

The main principle of co-design is that users, as experts of their own experience, have to become central and essential to the design process.This keeps users away from the common role as a data source and prioritizes the development and deepening of totally equal collaboration between all participants (STEEN; MANSCHOT; KONING, 2011).

The designer acts as a facilitator, providing means for the participants to communicate, be creative, share findings, failures, and new ideas. The facilitator can also help them to create personas — so they have a better understanding of themselves and others, storyboards, and user journeys (STEEN; MANSCHOT; KONING, 2011).

The benefits of using this kind of methodology include:

  • Generation of ideas with a high degree of originality that reflects the user.
  • Real-time validation of ideas and concepts.
  • Decision making is fairer and more informed.
  • Teamwork with a plural audience.
  • High levels of customer and user satisfaction and loyalty.
  • People tend to be more enthusiastic and adapt easily to changes and innovations.


I’m not here to say that neither User Centered Design nor Design Thinking works better, we live in a flexible (and capitalist) world and every project has its particularities. We have to change the way we do things, we can’t keep creating products for users that we only think we know.

User Centered Design and Design Thinking have proven to be most useful in design areas and product development for consumption. However, they seem to become obsolete from the moment they fail to embrace and solve the challenges we face today. We are no longer just creating simple products! We are designing future experiences for people and communities that are connected and informed in ways that we have never seen before.

This article clearly supports the idea that the designer, generally seen as the sole author and the dictator of the project, can also be a researcher, facilitator, and mainly a partner to the end-users. Designers are able to integrate themselves into the context and work side by side with the end-users to find the problems’ solution, creating amazing new experiences for consumers.

What about you? What are your thoughts on this matter?



  • POERSCHKE CÁSSIO. quando surgiu o designer. Available on: <http://lounge.obvi->.
  • VASCONCELOS, LUÍS A. Uma Investigacao em Metodologias de Design.pdf. Gradua- tion — Recife, Brasil: UFPE, 2009.
  • STEEN, M.; MANSCHOT, M.; KONING, N. D. Benefits of Co-design in Service Design Projects. p. 8, 2011.
  • SPINUZZI, C. The Methodology of Participatory Design. p. 12, 2005.
  • SANDERS, ELIZABETH, P., Stappers. CoCreation_Sanders_Stappers_08_preprint.pdf. 2008.
  • SANCHES, M. G.; FRANKEL, L. Co-design in Public Spaces: an Interdisciplinary Approach to Street Furniture Development. p. 10, 2010.