Participatory Design Workshops


Participation represents a means for people to actively engage in the ownership and ongoing development of programs and resources that they use or would like to use. In order to understand preferred forms of participation for people who experience food insecurity in Boulder, I conducted participatory design workshops in partnership with Boulder Food Rescue (BFR). In these workshops, 22 people who self-identified as food insecure participated in a series of activities to articulate their ideal visions of what it would look like to participate in improving food access in Boulder.


Based on the findings of the first two research studies in this project, our multimedia-elicitation interviews and participatory data analysis workshops, we found that participants had a strong desire to have a voice in the programs they use. However, they did not feel there were opportunities to provide input. More broadly, we found a desire to participate in efforts to improve food access and a lack of opportunities to do so.

Based on the results of our early research, our team believed that increasing opportunities for people to participate in the governance, development, and ongoing operation of community food resources had the greatest potential to have broad reaching, long-term positive impacts on improving food access. This was for a few reasons:

  1. Our findings suggested that participation and “having a voice” was very important to people affected by food insecurity and our community did not provide accessible, impactful means for participation.
  2. Increased participation can influence many other issues we identified by allowing people affected by food insecurity to identify the most pressing issues they face and co-create solutions aimed to address them.
  3. Focusing on participation places greater ownership, sovereignty, and control of resources into the hands of people who are using them, which, we believed, is where it belongs.
  4. Our community has control over changing the way participation is constructed and performed, as opposed to trying to influence programs that were beyond our direct influence such as federal-level programs like SNAP.


Given the goal of increasing opportunities for people to participate in efforts to improve food access, we needed to identify forms of participation that people affected by food insecurity would find accessible, engaging, and valuable. We were guided by the following research questions:

  1. What programs and efforts do people want to participate in?
  2. What forms of participation are people interested in?
  3. How often would people want to participate?
  4. How often would people be able to participate?
  5. How do we communicate the impact of participation to the people who are involved?
  6. Where would people prefer to engage in participatory activities?
  7. How do we support participation for a diverse group of people?
  8. What are the biggest barriers to participating (lack of time, not given enough opportunity, etc)?


We conducted participatory design workshops to explore our research questions. Design workshops are an effective tool for co-creating solutions with the people who are affected most by issues. Because our goal was to design potential ways to increase participation, a participatory activity was an ideal fit. Furthermore, design workshops were a good fit because building trust and creating co-ownership with participants were primary goals.

We explored several possible configurations and activities for our design workshops including future workshops, card sorting, storyboarding, narrative design, generative tools, collage making, and strategic visioning workshops. We needed workshop activities that would provide participants with scaffolding for articulating their ideas. This was because we found in the first two studies of our project that participants had difficulty articulating solutions to some of the problems they faced. Furthermore, since most participants reported not having experience with participatory programs, we found that it was particularly hard for people to envision ways that they could be more involved.

Ultimately, we developed our own design workshop protocol, which pulled from a number of the methods. At a high-level, our workshop was structured based on the future workshop method, where we first conducted activities aimed at critiquing existing systems for participation, then envisioned an ideal future, and, finally, discussed how how we would move from the present to the ideal future.

Picture of scenarios created by one of the groups during the Spanish workshops.
Figure 1. Scenarios created by one of the groups during the Spanish workshops.

The critiquing phase involved a facilitated brainstorm. Following that, the envisioning phase involved a card-based design activity, inspired by the instant card technique, where participants used cards to create scenarios describing ideal forms of participation (see Figure 1). Finally, the implementing phase involved a prioritization activity where they ranked the importance of different actors, actions, goals, and locations involved in food access (see Figure 2). This was intended to help us understand how to prioritize efforts to increase participation. At the end, we had a closing dialogue where we discussed next steps for the group. More details about our protocol can be found here.

Figure 2. Example of what the prioritization looks like for one category
Figure 2. Example of what the prioritization looks like for one category.

The workshop took place over two-days, each lasting around 2 hours. We hosted the workshop series twice – once in English and once in Spanish. In total, 6 people participated in the workshop conducted in English and 16 people participated in the workshops hosted in Spanish. The participants were people with a diversity of ages, housing situations, physical ability and family structures. At the beginning of both days of the workshop, we shared a meal together. Food was primarily prepared and provided by our team. In addition, on the second day of the workshops conducted in English, several participants prepared food to share with the researchers and other participants.


Through the workshops, participants envisioned 23 scenarios for how they could participate in efforts to improve food access in Boulder. However, there is context from the conversations surrounding them that is not fully conveyed in the scenarios alone.

We used the scenarios and the results of the prioritization activity to develop a set of action items. Our workshops suggest that these action items will create greater opportunities for participation in efforts to improve food access. We shared these action items with participants to get their feedback and continued input on prioritization. We are currently working on prioritizing these action items and will use them to guide action taken by our team. We have already begun to implement some of these actions within Boulder Food Rescue, such as implementing a feedback card program and establishing on-going dialogues to get feedback from program participants.

We also created a summary of high-level findings related to our research. We are sharing this summary and the action items with various stakeholders such as food pantries, transportation programs (e.g., the public transit system), the SNAP and WIC programs, the county public health organization, and local farmers and community gardens. We intend to partner with stakeholders to take action on the items we identified through our research.

We are in the process of writing a full report of our findings, which includes a framework for creating participatory programs around food access. We are targeting Spring 2018 for this report, which we will share broadly to people who participated in any phase of our research, stakeholder organizations, and the community-at-large, especially folks who experience food insecurity.