Friday, September 12, 2003

Reading:: Systems Design For, With, and By the User

Originally posted: Fri, 12 Sep 2003 09:44:56

Systems Design For, With, and by the Users: Proceedings of the Ifip Wg 9.1 Working Conference on Systems Design For, With, and by the Users
Ed. by U. Briefs, C. Ciborra, L. Schneider

I've been trying to get into the roots of participatory design lately, so I picked up this volume to see an addendum on the UTOPIA project. What a fun read. Back in 1983, people across Western Europe were concerned about automation and its impact on work and saw participatory approaches as a key counterbalance to management's attempts at total Taylorist control over the work process. So, even though "participatory design" hadn't been coined yet (papers mostly refer to "participative system design"), we see the same sort of rationale and arguments that we later see in Ehn's Work-Oriented Design of Computer Artifacts (1990) and the classic coedited volume Computers and Democracy: A Scandinavian Challenge (1987). But the thoughts are newer, the papers are more spread out geographically, and the excitement is more palpable.

You can almost smell the revolutionary fervor, for instance, as Ulrich Briefs explains that the eventual goals for "participatory steps towards a workers production policy in systems design" include "guaranteeing the right to work for everyone" and "changing the internal structures in organizations," goals that he says question the "basic structures of the capitalist society" (p.315). I personally find this idealism charming. And informative. Among the many papers are discussions of the legislative environment for "edp" (electronic data processing?) in Scandinavia, a comparison of participative design across the world, a discussion of representation of users, working reports on DUE, DEMOS, and UTOPIA, and many many many Marxist interpretations of work organization. It's especially sobering to read in the working report on UTOPIA that "the project must result in a 'technical success'" for it to be considered an overall success (p.447). Of course that didn't happen, and in later reports the blame is laid on a subcontractor! (See Ehn 1990; Bodker 1991.)

Reading these reports reminds me of something that Langdon Winner wrote in Scandinavian Journal of Information Systems some years later. Examining the results of the UTOPIA project, he points out that technically the resulting system was very similar to that of PageMaker on the Macintosh -- yet, he said, PageMaker and MacOS were developed by capitalists in the US without worker participation. So what is the concrete contribution of participatory design? We can easily come up with partial answers, of course -- including a discussion of how PD focuses on workflow as well as narrow technical aspects -- but that would be to miss Winner's larger point. The technical results of PD do not reflect the radical ideology, partially because PD itself is more evolutionary than revolutionary. For all the revolutionary fervor evident in these essays, we know that 20 years later the real revolutions -- globalization, work decentralization, the service economy -- had nothing to do with it, pushed things in a very different direction, and forced PD itself to go in a different direction.

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