Seeding: prototyping ‘in the wild’

Over the last few years I’ve experienced a real change in the kinds of design services that might be needed by, or offered to, clients – especially working in the not for profit and community sectors. As we all know, more and more organisations are beginning to see the potential for social technologies to engage with new audiences, or engage with their audience in new ways.  In such cases the design work can become more about re-configuration of existing technologies than creating something from scratch. Design-time is often spent on developing strategies for extending a client’s online presence through existing platforms, tools and channels. While we may be moving away from an emphasis on actual building and designing pixels in this version of design practice, our responsibility to successfully seed participation and engagement is growing.

seed image

‘Seeding’ refers to activities which enable or encourage the transfer of ownership from the designer to the user, and points to the moments in which which abstract design space engages with or shifts into concrete use space (for more info on these terms see references in this post)

Social technologies for prototyping

The term ‘seeding’ can be used to refer to a range of activities but the approach that I am most interested in currently makes use of existing social technologies such as blogs and mobile phones as prototyping tools.  Social technologies are rapidly being adapted into the repertoire of design researchers, Mobile Diaries (Digital Eskimo), Digital Etho (Cheskin, News Digital Media) and Digital Diaries (Frog) are all examples of  designers exploiting the mobile, digital and connected nature of these tools for early design research. However, it’s possible to move beyond the boundaries implied by “research”, and get straight into design. An example of this is the patchwork prototyping being done by Jones et al. [1]. In these projects existing technologies are configured as prototypes and deployed into the community. The tools themselves become the material through which early design exploration and research occurs, and potential uses emerge. A snip from Jones et al. in Handbook of Research on Open Source Software on Patchwork Prototyping:

the combining of open source software applications to rapidly create a rudimentary but fully functional prototype that can be used and hence evaluated in real life situations. The use of a working prototype enables the capture of more realistic and informed requirements than traditional methods that rely on users trying to imagine how they might use the envisaged system in their work, and even more problematic, how that system in use may change how they work. [1]

While this particular quote perhaps doesn’t capture the openness, flexibility and participatory nature of the process, the potential is there. Other researchers also using these kinds of online tools for early, participatory co-design are Owela (at VTT in Finland see also [2-5]) and Arki (Media Lab in Finland see also [6, 7]).

Design ‘in the wild’

There is a growing sense that some of our traditional UCD methods – that rely in large part testing during the “design phase” – prior to release – fall short in the context of social technologies that require participation and contribution by people to take their form e.g .[8].  Many development companies have been adopting a beta approach (or even perpetual beta) in part in response to this issue where the emphasis is ‘getting stuff out there’ in order to gain feedback (discussed in [9-11]). As part of this (and other changes to traditional design practices) design practitioners, UX in particular, are  finding ways to integrate with agile development processes. While I think there are a heap of positives about this, I see prototyping “in the wild” [12] as another exciting, design driven approach where seeding becomes a central design activity.

This was a very quick and oversimplified overview of some pretty complex shifts in practice, and I hope to provide a fuller account of these emerging  approaches and their relationship to our concepts of design and use in a different forum, for further references that tackle the issue of co-design and PD ‘in the wild’ see also [13-18]:[19, 20]


1.    Jones, M.C., Floyd, I.R., Twidale, M.B.: Patchwork Prototyping with Open Source Software. In: St.Amant, K., Still, B. (eds.): Handbook of Research on Open Source Software: Technological, Economic, and Social Perspectives. Information Science Reference, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA (2007) 126-140
2.    Näkki, P., Antikainen, M., Virtanen, T.: Participatory Design in an Open Web Laboratory Owela CHI08. ACM, Florence, Italy (2008)
3.    Näkki, P.: Owela: Open Web Laboratory for Innovation and Design. ERCIM News Vol. 2009 (2008)
4.    Owela. Vol. 2009
5.    Näkki, P., Antikainen, M.: Online Tools for Co-design: User Involvement through the Innovation Process. In: Karahasanović, A., Følstad, A. (eds.): NordiCHI 2008 workshops: Requirements Elicitation & HCI and Social Media Development Lund, Sweden (2008)
6.    Botero, A., Kommonen, K.-H., Oilinki, I., Koskijoki, M.: Codesigning Visions, Uses, and Applications. TechnE Design Wisdom” 5th European Academy of Design Conference, Barcelona (2003)
7.    Botero, A., Saad-Sulonen, J.: Co-designing for new city-citizen interaction possibilities: weaving prototypes and interventions in the design and development of Urban Mediator. PDC’09. ACM, Bloomington, USA (2008)
8.    Isbister, K., Höök, K.: On being supple: in search of rigor without rigidity in meeting new design and evaluation challenges for HCI practitioners. Proceedings of the 27th international conference on Human factors in computing systems. ACM, Boston, MA, USA (2009)
9.    Merholz, P.: Embrace the chaos – designers and systems with emergent behavior. Vol. 2008 (2006) <>
10.    Porter, J.: The Freedom of Fast Iterations: How Netflix Designs a Winning Web Site. Vol. 2008 (2006) <>.
11.    Holzapfel, N.: An unsuitable match: social media and User-Centred design. Johnny Holland (2008)
12.    Hutchins, E.: Cognition in the Wild. MIT (1995)
13.    Battarbee, K., Cabrera, A.B., Mattelmäki, T., Rizzo, F.: Designed for Co-designers: Workshop Call for Participation. PDC 2008 (2008)
14.    Brereton, M., Buur, J.: New challenges for design participation in the era of ubiquitous computing. CoDesign 4 (2008) 101 – 113
15.    Rehead, F., Brereton, M.: Getting to the Nub of Neighbourhood Interaction. PDC’08. ACM, Bloomington, USA (2008)
16.    Cabrera, A.B.: Emerging Digital Practices of Communities In: käytännot, A.A.d. (ed.):  (2006)
17.    Karasti, H., Syrjänen, A.-L.: Artful Infrastructuring in Two Cases of Community PD Participatory Design Conference. ACM, Toronto, Canada (2004)
18.    Dittrich, Y., EriksénII, S., HanssonI, C.: PD in the Wild; Evolving Practices of Design in Use Participatory Design. CPSR, Malmö, Sweden, (2002)
19.    Merkel, C.B., Xiao, L., Farooq, U., Ganoe, C.H., Lee, R., Carroll, J.M., Rosson, M.B.: Participatory Design in Community Computing Contexts: Tales from the Field
. Participatory Design Conference. ACM, Toronto, Canada (2004)
20.    Merkel, C., Farooq, U., Xiao, L., Ganoe, C., Rosson, M.B., Carroll, J.M.: Managing technology use and learning in nonprofit community organizations: methodological challenges and opportunities. Proceedings of the 2007 symposium on Computer human interaction for the management of information technology. ACM, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2007)


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