Integrating Multiple Perspectives on

Participatory Design : InterLiving


Position Paper for CHI 2002 New Technologies for Families Workshop

Wendy E. Mackay


Domaine de Voluceau - Rocquencourt, B.P. 105

78153 Le Chesnay Cedex, France



The interLiving project involves families in the participatory design of new communication technologies, as part of the European Union's Disappearing Computer Initiative. Our goals are to understand the needs of diverse families, to develop innovative artifacts that support the needs of both co-located and distributed families and to explore the impact such technologies on today's families.

We have chosen a participatory design approach that integrates multiple perspectives, not only from the diverse backgrounds of the researchers on the project, but also by including multiple generations of family members, from Sweden, France and the United States, throughout the design process.

We face interesting methodological questions: how can we allow all participants to contribute to the design process and communicate effectively with each other, despite the diversity of perspectives? We have developed, borrowed and extended a number of research methods and are attempting to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each.


Participatory design, families, domestic technologies, multiple perspectives, multi-disciplinary design, triangulation



The interLiving project aims to develop "situated emergent technologies that bring families together". In particular, we are exploring how "shared surfaces", with various shapes, sizes and forms handling diverse kinds of information, can help family members communicate within and across households. The researchers, who are Swedish, French and American, come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, including computer science, social sciences and design.

All of the research partners have strong backgrounds in participatory design, although we each have different emphases. Sundblad and his colleagues [5] exemplify the "Scandinavian approach", with a long and influential history in collaborative design and an underlying political perspective that has successfully brought workers into the design process. From the United States, Druinand her colleagues [1] have extensive experience working with children and have argued that they can and should be included as full design partners. My own background, shaped by both industry and research projects, emphasizes triangulation across scientific, engineering and design disciplines [4], with an emphasis on design approaches, video in particular [3] that allow participants with diverse backgrounds to participate on an equal footing.

The interLiving project is grounded in participatory design and influenced by each of these perspectives. However, we all face a new challenge: designing for and with families. Note that our emphasis is on families, not homes. We expect some of the technologies we develop to be used in the home, but we are more interested in how the technologies affect and are affected by the relationships among family members. We are experimenting with each other's methods and developing new design strategies, in an attempt to extend and evaluate them in this new context. A primary goal is to understand which methods best support design across different kinds of multiple perspectives.

Managing multiple perspectives

The first set of multiple perspectives relates to ourselves as researchers. Each site has a mix of computer scientists (with a software engineering perspective), social scientists (primarily psychology and anthropology) and design (graphic and industrial design). Many team members have training in multiple disciplines. We need methods that benefit from each researcher's strengths, without creating a "throw it over the wall" relay system from one type of researcher to another.

Speaking simplistically, social scientists are trained to observe and evaluate, but not to create new artifacts. Engineers are trained to build systems and solve technical problems, but not to question what the design should be. Designers are trained to create innovative and aesthetically-pleasing designs "that work", but not to explain why.

Of course, individuals may break out of these stereotypes, but we find that some specific techniques help people from one training and value system to understand and appreciate the contributions of people from other backgrounds. We have explicitly created situations in which everyone is faced with something new: engineers and designers observe and interpret user data, designers and psychologists build interactive prototypes, and engineers and psychologists explore the design space.

The second set of multiple perspective involves our users: the family members. We are working with multiple generations who are connected to each other by different family ties, across multiple households. They do not share our research interests, but do enjoy discussing family life and exploring ideas for innovations they can use in their homes.

We need strategies that allow children and grandparents to have an equal voice with parents. We have asked family members to contribute information about themselves, via cultural probes [2] and interviews and to share in various design activities, sometimes at home, but most often in the context of all-day or half-day workshops.

The third set of multiple perspectives involves cultural differences, both among the researchers and across the families. Both Swedish researchers and family members come from a culture that strongly values collaborative building. (Toys such as Brio trains and Lego bricks reflect this attitude.) In this environment, asking people to build cardboard mockups together is considered a natural and engaging activity. In contrast, the French have a more analytical approach to schooling and shared building of prototypes is considered a new and somewhat unusual activity.

Current design strategies

Our current strategy is to use a mix of approaches to gather information and to collaboratively develop ideas. We have visited each of the six families at home, both to interview them and to learn about their home environments. We have also used variations of Giver's cultural probes to gather certain kinds of information about the families and to serve as inspirations for design. For example, we asked the families to draw maps of how they communicate with one another. They interpreted the assignment very differently: some focused on people, others on locations and others on technology. Some included just the immediate household, others included the extended family, still others added external groups such as sports teams. We gained insights into how the families perceive themselves as families and where to concentrate on developing technologies to better support them.

The other major activity involves designing with the families. We have brought the families together in a series of interactive workshops, which allow them to meet other families, compare each other's perspectives, and to work with us on design activities. We have experimented with a variety of exercises, within andacross family groups.

One of our biggest challenges has been to ensure that everyone participates or at least has a voice. We usually start with verbal exercises, such as asking family members to tell us stories (or scenarios) about specific situations. These verbal exercises favored the most verbally-dominant family members, usually of the parents generation (and often the father). Children would fidget or go explore the room, waiting for their parents to finish. In contrast, events involving brainstorming of new ideas, in which everyone is explicitly invited to participate in their own way and in which participants can act in parallel, achieved much higher participation by all family members. The most fun, and interactive, involved collaboratively building things: whether to illustrate a storyboard, brainstorm a new idea or show what a new "shared surface" in the home might be. In some cases, particularly with the French families, the children were more active than the parents in contributing ideas. We have also experimented with using video as a prototyping tool. Some families enjoyed acting out ideas together in front of the camera, others found it difficult.

Future design strategies

We are now incorporating our different disciplinary and design perspectives in a new method we call "technical probes". These involve social science (gathering data), engineering (building new technology) and design (aesthetic considerations). Technology probes, unlike prototypes, are explicitly designed to be very simple in terms of functionality, but open to wide interpretation in terms of how they will be used. We hope the families will re-interpret them and appropriate them in ways that we do not expect. The probes provide detailed logs (approved by the family members) that give us data about how the family members communicate with each other and also provide a source of design inspiration, acting as triggers for new ideas of new kinds of technologies that the families may want.


Although the interLiving project is still in an early phase, we have already experimented with a variety ofparticipatory design techniques. The particular challenges of working with families have encouraged us to draw from our different research and cultural perspectives and we are continuing to explore strategies that empower all participants in the design process.

While our emphasis is on families, we believe refined versions of these techniques will be useful in other design settings, particularly those in which productivity is not the primary goal and where the context of how technology is used affects its design.


1. Druin, A. (1999). Cooperative inquiry: Developing new technologies for children with children. Human Factors in Computing Systems: CHI 99 (pp. 223-230). ACM Press.

2. Gaver, W.W. and Dunne, A. (1999) Projected Realities: Conceptual Design for Cultural Effect. In CHIí99 Proceedings of Human Factors In Computing Systems, ACM Press. pp. 600-608.

3.†† Mackay, W.E., Ratzer, A., and Janecek, P. (2000) Video artifacts for design: Bridging the gap between abstraction and detail. Proceedings of ACM DIS 2000, Conference on Designing Interactive Systems. Brooklyn, New York. ACM Press.

4.†† Mackay, W.E. and Fayard, A-L. (1997) HCI, Natural Science and Design: A Framework for Triangulation Across Disciplines. Proceedings of ACM DIS '97, Designing Interactive Systems. Amsterdam, Pays-Bas: ACM/SIGCHI, pp.223-234.

5. Sundblad, Y. (1987). Quality and interaction in computer-aided graphic design (Utopia Report #15). Stockholm: Arbetslivscentrum.


For more information about the interLiving project, see: