Understanding the Versatility of Visualization Tools in Participatory Design

Researchers at the University of Bath’s Architecture and Civil Engineering Department conducted a large-scale participatory design (PD) study to determine the effectiveness of PD in addressing the social and cultural incompatibilities of temporary refugee shelters. “Participatory Design in Refugee Camps: Comparison of Different Methods and Visualization Tools” outlines the study’s research process and provides a comparative analysis of the various visualization tools used in creating new shelter designs. What is most relevant to the technical communicator from the article is its emphasis on evaluating and tailoring one’s research tools for specific research questions and aims. The study argues that researchers can better accommodate participants and agencies with limited research budgets by understanding which visualization tools best operate under specific constraints. Since technical communicators generally work under tight budget constraints, the study’s evaluation process is beneficial to the understanding of our own visualization tools in the field of technical communication.

The study examined three visualization tools; (1) computer models, (2) physical prototypes, and (3) virtual reality and offered two forms of participatory design methods; (1) adapt-a-design and (2) design-your-own. Dr. Dima Albadra, along with her colleagues, highlight the importance of assessing different visualization tools to best serve “‘participants’ inability to conceptualize their needs and requirements” as well as accounting for “challenges include[ing] differences in cultural practices, language, location and access, [and the] time and effort needed to engender trust and engagement of participants” (Albadra et al. 2021, 250). 

The group discovered specific potential patterns that occur when utilizing research visualization tools in PD. These discoveries provide important insights for technical communicators conducting usability tests during early iterations of documents. Most notably, the group’s findings can aid the technical communicator working with international clients of different languages and cultures. This information is also useful for designing products intended for diverse audiences with differing social, economic, generational, and cultural backgrounds. The research found that certain visualization tools removed certain barriers, while others increased certain barriers during PD testing:

  1. physical prototypes removed ‘technology hurdles,
  2. software programs removed participant agency due to a lack of understanding the program,
  3. when confronted with unfamiliar tools; participants reverted to the familiar (pen and paper),
  4. shorter timed research blocks accommodated more participants (women with children),
  5. offering too many details was distracting and overwhelming, and
  6. adjusting an existing idea, design, or prototype was easier for participants than coming up with one ‘out of thin air.’

The discoveries listed above are just a few of the valuable takeaways from this study, and I would urge readers to explore the article in more detail. This study’s evaluation of visualization tools encourages tailoring visualization research methods for communities with diverse social and cultural differences. Technical communicators are not simply working in technical fields. As government and public sectors attempt to apply technology’s culture of innovation and smart design to public policy fixes, participatory design is one research method that technical communicators may find themselves using more regularly. The university’s study provides valuable insights for the technical communication community by offering potential avenues for evaluating technical communication tools during participatory design, improving our work with diverse communities in the public sector under budgetary constraints.


Participatory Design in Refugee Camps: Comparison of Different Methods and Visualization Tools, by Dima Albadra, Zeinab Elamin, Kemi Adeyeye, Eleni Polychronaki, David Coley, Juliana Calabria-Holley, Alexander Copping

Viewpoint Written by Laura Soran, Texas State University

Edited by Kimberly N Uzzel, Texas State University

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