Jo’s consultancy with the project ended in October, but the next meeting with my partners was pushed into November. This meeting was a chance to present what Jo and I had come up with, get feedback and do some planning together. I had blogged about some of the progress we had been making, but I had not had the chance to speak with my partners about them. So in addition to sharing our mock-up design drafts, I also needed to share that we should do some user research and that I had decided I should be willing to scrap the designs if we had ended up in a situation where we were working on my rather than our ideas. This was supposed to be a project about working together in new ways – not about me using my partners to create a digital product I thought would be useful.
Having spent some time catching up and communicating the concept of paper prototyping, I began by presenting the personas and scenarios I’d fleshed out for our users. This caused some alarm in the group because it was felt we had already dealt with this – we had discussed personas way back in our first meeting together in July. The expectation was that we had moved on from this and would now be looking at draft designs. While assuring my partners that we did have something for them to look at did calm these concerns, the momentary panic reminded me of the expectation of progress. My partners are investing time and energy in the project and want to see something come of it. For me, the process of working together may be what is the most important, because that is the focus of my research, but for my partners, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems to be more about the product.
Going over the mockups I had prepared proved a really useful exercise. Having something tangible as a reference, however rudimentary, proved really helpful for discussing expectations of what the platform would look like and how it would function. One of the things I really wanted was to provide users with tools to intuitively explore uploaded content. One of my pet peeves problems with similar platforms like Know Your Place, is that they rely exclusively on a pin-on-map interface. It is really useful for professionals doing desk-based impact assessments, but not that great if you just want to explore.
I played around with a couple of visualisations that I’ve copied in above. The right half is a network matrix that attempts to show how different entities on the site are linked. Seeing it laid out in this way let my partners engage directly with the design process and express that this feature was confusing and unhelpful. It initiated a really helpful conversation of what we want and don’t want this platform to be like. The left half is an attempt to give an overview of what people find important about a place. It is a way of organising information that is adapted from Janet Stephenson’s Cultural Values Model for landscapes. I had been very unsure about including it, but I left it in because I felt very strongly that we needed a way of communicating what is there at a glance. While I think the headings need more work, they get at the fact that places are important because of what is there, physically, the things that go on there and because of the things we know, remember or believe about a place. In the end, this feature was one of the ones my partners were the most positive about.
From the beginning, the idea behind this digital tool has been that people should be able to share what they consider their heritage to be and explain why it is important to them. As a result, it is a platform for capturing and communicating opinions about heritage. That said, an early concern raised by my partners was that the platform should aim to impact how people interact with heritage in person, not just online. There has also been a concern about the role of fact or truth as opposed to opinion. Seeing what the platform might look like, opened up the possibility for clearer conversations about expectations of the type of information that would be available on the site. While I’ve been quite stuck on the point that I believe that heritage is mostly about opinions, the point was raised that we want people to be able to direct users to places where they can learn more – like other websites, libraries and museums. Web addresses and opening times for institutions like these are arguably facts not opinions and a clear desire for there to be room for this kind of information on the site was expressed. In the current context of threats of closures, encouraging the use of cultural institutions was seen as especially important.
As I’d mentioned in my previous blog post, I was increasingly concerned that this co-design project was not achieving what I had hoped. I had hoped we would be designing together, but recently it had felt that my partners were simply a sounding board – consultants rather than partners – for my research project. I was concerned that I was using them to push my agenda and that this project was turning into the kind of participatory project I am critical of. As a result, I felt it was important to mention that if my partners did not think this was a worthwhile project and that we should be designing something else together, we could scrap all these ideas and work on something they thought was more worthwhile. This idea that we would throw away all the work we had already done was met with dismay. It was also mentioned that ‘this is your project’ (my PhD). I really can’t blame anyone from reacting in this way, but it did add to my concerns. I set out to sustain community heritage groups through co-design. That was what my partners signed up to be part of. I am committed to seeing this co-design project through and I still think we can come up with a really useful product, but I had hoped we would end up truly designing together. This may have been unrealistic. These kinds of expectations should obviously be discussed at the beginning of a project, but back then I don’t think any of us thought we would be making mock-ups like these ourselves. Now it has taken me back to considering roles and responsibilities. I think it’s great that we can take more control over the design process, but it is time-consuming, especially in the beginning. It raises new requirements and introduces expectations we had not discussed. Ultimately, it brings me back to considering what I should expect of my partners and what they should expect of me. Which kinds of participation are useful, reasonable and realistic – and in which contexts?