113: 4 Participatory Research Methods





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  1. What’s on your radar?
    • Plotting items according to personal priorities
    • Purposes:
      • Reveals what people are thinking
      • Shows people’s priorities
      • Challenge preconceptions
      • Yields docs that inform later work
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify research topic
      • Make a large poster that looks like a radar screen
        • Include 3 concentric circles & 4-6 segments
        • Label circles: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary
        • Label segments by research subtopic
      • Invite group of stakeholders to be participants.
      • Provide sticky notes and pens.
    • Implementation steps:
      • Instruct participants on how to populate the radar screen
      • After they are done, have them explain their rankings
    • Helpful hints:
      • Limit plotting time to 15 minutes.
      • Allow participants to write in some segment labels.
      • Listen closely to participants’ Think Alouds and explanations.
    • Sample process:
      • Purpose: Deciding who to research, these using research to fuel new ideas
      • Steps
        • Stakeholder mapping (Understanding)
        • What on your radar? (Looking)
        • Thumbnail Sketching (Making)
        • Concept Poster (Making)
    • Classroom applications:
      • Can use radar to let students prioritize possible classroom norms
      • Can use radar to let students map out and prioritize interests that relate to major topics in a course in order to get new project ideas
      • Can use radar to let students categorize and prioritize their content & logistics knows and need-to-knows
  2. Buy a feature
    • Playing a game with artificial money to express trade-off decisions
    • Purposes:
      • Reveal what people value
      • Show how people deliberate
      • Uncovers latent and unmet needs
      • Yields documents that inform ensuing work
    • Prep steps:
      • Identify product, service or policy to focus on
      • Generate list of possible features.
      • Make playing cards for features that include
        • price
        • description of feature
      • Invite stakeholders to play the game
    • Implementation steps:
      • Give each player a set of cards with price tags.
      • Give each player a limited amount of fake money.
      • Ask them purchase features within the budget.
      • Ask them to explain their decision making processes.
    • Helpful hints:
      • Base pricing on actuals time and money costs of execution.
      • Listen for evidence of motivations & priorities.
      • Have participants make decisions in pairs.
    • Sample process:
      • Purpose: Discovering values stakeholders attach to feature and forming suggestions for improvement
      • Steps:
        • Buy a Feature (Looking)
        • Schematic Diagramming (Making)
        • Rough & Ready Prototyping (Making)
    • Classroom applications:
      • Can get students to play this game to show their preferences for different types of learning activities in an upcoming project to help refine project calendar
      • Can get students to play this game to prioritize assignment / late work policies to gather data to refine these policies
  3. Build your own
    • Express ideal solutions symbolically
    • Purposes:
      • Shows what stakeholders want
      • Uncovers latent and unmet needs
      • Challenges assumptions
      • Yields models for subsequent work
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify product, service or policy to focus on.
      • Make a kit of representational blocks.
        • Include variety of shapes and symbols.
      • Invite stakeholders to participate.
    • Implementation steps:
      • Divide participants into pairs
      • Pairs work together to use kits to build ideal solutions.
      • Think aloud while they construct
      • Present final models.
    • Helpful hints:
      • Make units easy to build (magnets, velcro)
      • Limit building time (15-30 minutes)
      • Listen carefully as teams explain their wants and needs.
    • Sample processes:
      • Purpose: Prioritizing which elements to include in a participatory design activities and to engage stakeholders in analysis
      • Steps:
        • Bull’s-eye Diagramming (Understanding)
        • Build Your Own (Looking)
        • Visualize the Vote (Understanding)
        • Critique (Looking)
    • Classroom applications:
      • Can get students to do this activity in order to design ideal sequences of activities that build their agency & collaboration skills
      • Can get students to do this activity to share their ideas related to classroom norms and classroom culture
      • Can get students to do this activity to get a representation of how they’d like projects to run throughout the year
  4. Journaling
    • People record personal experiences in words and pictures
    • Purposes:
      • Accumulates research info over time
      • Reveals what people think and feel
      • Deepens empathy
    • Preparation steps:
      • Identify research topics.
      • Make kit of materials for record keeping – paper diary, blog, etc
      • Invite group of stakeholders to participate.
    • Implementation steps:
      • Explain the purpose and duration of study.
      • Distribute instructions and kits.
      • Include guide for capturing pictures and video.
      • Ask them to fill out journal and mail it back to you.
      • Perform exit interview with each participant.
    • Helpful hints:
      • Encourage people to use their own devices.
      • Send periodic reminders to fill out journals.
      • Provide postage for returning kits
    • Sample process:
      • Purpose: Collecting data from stakeholders that inform search for new ideas
      • Steps:
        • Journaling (Looking)
        • Rose, Thorn, Bud (Understanding)
        • Statement starters (Understanding)
        • Creative Matrix (Making)
    • Classroom applications:
      • Can gather data on how students are experiencing and growing during a project – can ask students to focus on feature of key interest such as successes, stuck points, useful strategies, etc


Participatory research methods can be used to find out participants’ unexpressed needs.  Teachers can use these methods to learn about students’ habits, priorities, preferences, and interests.  Teachers can teach students these methods in the context of design projects.  Students can use these methods to gather data on their clients that they will inform how they design products.


Preparation Steps
  • For teacher use (researching students):
    • Decide research topics (examples: what are their interests, what learning activities do they prefer)
    • Select method(s) that will help gather most useful information related to research topics
  • For student use (researching stakeholders for project):
    • Brainstorm research topics in projects that lend themselves to participatory research methods
    • Design resources that help students prepare and implement methods.  See above.
Early Implementation Steps
  • For teacher use (researching students):
    • Implement participatory research methods
    • Follow-up with understanding steps.  See hyperlinks above for ideas.
  • For student use (researching stakeholders for project):
    • Scaffold participatory research activities (preparation and implementation)
    • Follow-up with understanding activities.  See hyperlinks above for ideas.
Advanced Implementation Steps
  • For teacher use (researching students):
    • Share findings with students and have them reflect on whether or not the findings have any validity.
    • Develop interventions, calendars, strategies, activities, and routines that address verified findings.
  • For student use (researching stakeholders for project):
    • Have students reflect on participatory research methods – how did it work?  what assumptions were challenged? what new things were learned? what new ideas were inspired? how can this approach be used in other settings?



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