Reflections on Increasing Participation and Rethinking “Whose Knowledge Counts?” in Service Design

This piece originally appeared in METHODSPACE by Sage Publishing.

"This post is part of our series on Research<>Relevance, which will include original posts, interviews, and resources about how to better meet today’s real problems and make an authentic contribution. Collins’ post offers recommendations drawn from participatory action research."

“We privilege the knowledge and research skills of grassroots activists, noting that not all researchers are employed at universities, as activists also conduct research and produce ‘sophisticated knowledge’

(Jeppesen, Hounslow, Khan & Petrick, 2017, p. 2)
Facilitate to Design, Design to Facilitate

Facilitate to Design, Design to Facilitate

Service Design (SD) is a field that leverages people’s knowledge in the design of relevant services. Service Design takes a holistic, research based, participatory and iterative approach to addressing challenges. SD takes the experiences of the end users as well as those who deliver that service into account.

A fundamental part of our role as Service Designers is to be aggregators of data, people, and perspectives. Service Designers—in organizations and in the field—are thought of as a combination of researchers, facilitators of workshops, and builders of prototypes (a prototype is a representation of an idea that people can interact with and try out). By incorporating facilitation practices throughout the entire Service Design process, designers and researchers increase the participatory nature of their projects and collaborations. They thereby increase value to the communities that their work concerns.

Service Designers often refer to the participatory nature of their work as co-creation or co-design. Motivations service designers have may vary for taking or not taking a co-creative approach, including ethical values (e.g., “it is the right thing to do”), expediency (e.g., “we have no time to get people involved as co-creators!”), or pragmatism (e.g., “the service will be better if we involve people directly”). At a more general level, a benefit of a co-creative approach is that key concepts emerge based on the needs of the participants who will ultimately take part in the service or use the service.

To support co-creation, Yang notes two roles professional designers can play in the co-creation of value in a service design process, designing with and for creative communities:

  1. “Designing with creative communities, which means that the designers need to guide different members to share new ideas and possible solutions to promote multidisciplinary cooperation and sharing,

  2. Designing for creative communities, which indicates that the designers can create visible solutions, to allow stakeholders to see, experience, and evaluate the feasibility of new solutions in-depth (Yang, 2016: 24).”

I am focusing on the former, where the designer is facilitating the expertise of several participants. Ultimately, Service Design has the potential to further embrace genuinely co-creative and participatory practices by rethinking who is a part of the research team, valuing multiple forms of knowledge, drawing on facilitation skills to co-create boundary objects (explained below), and viewing stakeholders as participants in the questions and prototypes developed rather than objects of inquiry.  I now unpack these ideas to explore how service designers can increase a project’s co-creative approach.

  1. Invite people with lived experience of the challenge to be a part of the research team:
    This is an area where service designers could take a page from the Action Research (Stringer & Ortiz Aragón, 2021) and Community Based Participatory Research (Wallerstein et al, 2017) playbooks, in which there is a deep dedication to people-centered co-research as an ideal. Service Design could benefit from a consistent practice of having people who experience the challenge on the research or project team.

For example, in a recent collaboration, Moxie (a service design agency) and Envision Community (a nonprofit focused on homelessness alleviation) partnered with a Football Stadium to understand their employees' experiences with homelessness. Community members with direct experience with homelessness (through Envision) were a part of the research team, which as a result, created a team that had a blend of lived experience in homelessness, stadium expertise and experience in service design. In this project, members from Envision Community are lived experience or subject matter experts and collaborate on all aspects of the project, from developing research questions to participating in interviews, processing data and co-designing new ideas.

Involvement of Lived Experience Experts can range from forming part of or as advisors to the research team through regular feedback sessions. Lived Experience Experts can give perspective and contribute throughout the project, from developing the interview questions to designing a workshop. Fundamentally, they work as a part of the research team to make decisions that influence the design, rather than being the object of the design. Let’s take interview questions as an example; Lived Experience Experts are not the object of the questions; rather, they are active participants in the construction of the interview questions, interview sessions and synthesis.

This type of participation means the designer or researcher is facilitating the knowledge that is in the room. The facilitator’s goal is to understand the collective intelligence of the group, rather than simply paying attention to their own creative motivations. Further, Lived Experience Experts are not asked to come in only at the end to test a concept, they’re asked to come in from the start. Engaging lived experience experts throughout has multiple benefits: 1) it is inclusive and connects with community values (“nothing about us, without us”[1]) 2) it can help increase the potential that certain ideas or initiatives are usable and exist beyond a meeting or workshop (although testing is still necessary), 3) it creates trust and buy-in for future prototyping and testing within communities.

  1. Co-create Boundary Objects to value and make visible the experiences and knowledge that people bring to the table:
    "Boundary objects are objects which [...] have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable, a means of translation" (Star & Griesemer, 1989).

Boundary Objects help us visualize a challenge or reality. They help diverse groups have a common understanding of a problem, but do not impose a common point of view or opinion of that problem. Teams practicing Service Design will often take the data that has been collected and express the data as a journey map or service blueprint, which are both examples of boundary objects. An increased participatory approach includes inviting participants who may have been interviewed or have experience in the challenge and asking them to create these boundary objects based on the data collected.

Another approach, which Service Designer do quite regularly, is hosting sessions where external participants are asked to take part and share their experiences with a particular challenge or service by mapping it with a storyboard or journey map. An example of this could be asking patients in a healthcare setting to share their experience at the doctor’s office by creating a journey map. In these moments, participants are able to generate knowledge together and participate in the research by creating the data through the expression of boundary objects.

Designers and researchers can play a role as the aggregators and orchestrators of the knowledge that emerges from these processes. By aggregating the data and resources they make key lessons available to inform future action or next steps. By orchestrating the people, place and flow of a session, service designers can help create space for the voices and knowledge that are in the room.

3. Ask participants to co-create, not just inform, or evaluate:
A prototype is a representation of an idea that people can interact with and try. Designers and action researchers can create moments where external participants are asked to share their ideas by developing a small version (or prototype) of that idea they think would address the particular challenge. This can happen through prototyping sessions or even during in-depth interviews where participants can be asked to draw or build something.

Prototyping is another way for participants to co-create knowledge. People with lived experience are often on the receiving end of the prototypes. They are asked to evaluate a prototype or share their point of view of how it works. They are not always active constructors of that prototype.

For example, members in a small software team wanted to redesign one of their core tools. They knew from several support tickets that people wanted more flexibility within the software. After interviewing customers, the team built an evaluative prototype that people could click and test. At the same time, the team engaged in more exploratory prototyping and asked users to sketch how their ideal tool would function. In this example, the team used both approaches of creating evaluative prototypes as well as exploratory prototypes.


Reflecting on these three service design intentions may help increase it’s participatory nature. These three intentions and critical questions may be help to ask at the start of a challenge:

Invite people with lived experience of the challenge to be a part of the research team:
Consider: whose knowledge and perspective counts (Chambers, 2003)? Whose doesn’t count by their absence? Does the decision making and research team have people with lived experience? Is the Service Designer’s role that of a convener and facilitator of the knowledge?

Co-create boundary objects to value and make visible the experiences and knowledge that people bring to the table.
Consider: How will we value and make visible the experiences and knowledge that people bring to the table in a way that is easily understood? What will we need to do so that teams have the opportunity to visualize and communicate their knowledge?

Ask participants to co-create, not just inform or evaluate.
Consider: How will we create space for people with lived experience to actively take part in the development of concepts and prototypes?

While not a conclusive list, engaging with these intentions and questions can help design a more participatory approach in Service Design. What has been helpful in your participatory approaches?


Chambers, R. (2003). Whose reality counts? Putting the first last. Practical Action Publishing.

Star, Susan Leigh, and James R. Griesemer. “Institutional Ecology, 'Translations' and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39.” Social Studies of Science, vol. 19, no. 3, 1989, pp. 387–420. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Jan. 2021. 

Sandra Jeppesen, Toni Hounslow, Sharmeen Khan & Kamilla Petrick (2017) Media Action Research Group: toward an antiauthoritarian profeminist media research methodology, Feminist Media Studies, 17:6, 1056-1072, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2017.1283346

Stringer, E. T., & Ortiz Aragón, A. (2021). Action research (Fifth edition). SAGE.

Yang, C., & Sung, T. 2016 Apr 28. Service Design for Social Innovation through Participatory Action Research. International Journal of Design [Online] 10:1. Available:

Wallerstein, N., Duran, B., Oetzel, J., & Minkler, M. (Eds.). (2017). Community-based participatory research for health: Advancing social and health equity (Third edition). Jossey-Bass & Pfeiffer Imprints, Wiley.

[1] This quote comes from the disability community: Nothing about us without us