Participatory Design

I am pretty sure I’m never going to be done organizing my apartment.  Until I somehow frame this as productive exercise rather than some kind of opportunity cost, its always far down on the list of priorities.  My brain does a wonderful job of finding other things to do.

I usually put on some kind of background noise.  Today it was Urbanized, a documentary about urban planning.  That won’t derail my organizing!

Yeah, well, fail.

There was a part early on talking about low income housing.  Rather than trying to build really small, cheap, but complete units, they built reasonably nice, but basically unfinished units.  The structure and basics are there (shelter, plumbing), but that’s about it.  The idea is the family that moves in finishes the task.  An extreme form of participatory design.

This is a term I’d never heard of, but is obviously at the root of how we’re supposed to make software.  The users participating in the design.

In this case, not only were they participating, they were expected to complete the project after the initial structure was built.  Sort of the physical world version of the ideal open source project.

The thing that struck me (and gave a wonderful excuse to stop cleaning and write a quick blog post) was the decision process.  Before the families move in, there is a period where they can make decisions about what gets built.  It turns out, its not a strictly bare-bones build.  There is budget to do a few things up front, but the family needs to make a choice.

The shocker?  The family gets to choose between a hot water heater and a bathtub.  The interviewee says that if a politician were given the choice, he or she would pick hot water heater for everybody, as I imagine most of us would (and I would have picked that too, were this not an obvious setup for a not-so-obvious answer).

The families generally pick the bathtub.

Why would you want a bath with cold water, right?  Well, first of all, from the slums they associate a shower with a no-privacy kind of situation, since they generally had no running water in the past.  Negative association.  Also, the obvious.  Hot water heaters cost money to run.  I’m pretty sure bathtubs predate hot water heaters, but its just something you don’t think about.

Not a ground breaking realization.  Just a subtle reminder that even things you’d think were obvious are not, and neglecting the right kind of feedback is bad for everybody.  Back to the organizing.