Participatory Design for Autism – a workshop for HCI students

On the 27th of March 2023 we run a workshop for Human-Computer Interaction Design masters students at City University, London, to introduce them to the participatory research methods developed as part of Autistic Adults Online.

The workshop was led by Dr Belen Pena, HCI lecturer at City who has been a key researcher in Autistic Adults Online. In fact, Belen worked intensively on the participatory design section of this research, leading workshops with autistic participants [see workshop 1, 2, and 3]. As part of her work for Autistic Adults Online, Belen created a series of methods that made it possible for autistic participants to reflect on their social media experiences and to re-imagine how social media could look like to better accommodate autistic sociality.

This students’ workshop, first of two we have planned as part of our programme of outreach and dissemination activities, was a great occasion to introduce these methods to HCI students, many of whom are also industry practitioners. The aims of the workshop were to familiarise students with the participatory methods through hands-on activities, to help them reflect on the needs of autistic users and on how to design with these in mind.

The workshop started with an introduction on neurodiversity and participation, two key conceptual frameworks that have informed the entire research project.

This was followed by an introductory activity where students presented themselves through an image of something they have made, which was uploaded on a pad let before the start of the workshop. This activity not just showed the students’ fantastic range of interests (and skills!) but was also an excellent example of an autism-friendly interest-based ice breaker.

The first hands-on activity in the workshop was based on a technique called evidence safari, which was used in the original research with autistic participants during workshop 1. Evidence safaris allow workshop participants to gain an understanding of complex data by organising it through a series of evidence cards. Data presented through evidence cards is easily digestible and become the basis of discussions and reviews. In this research, the evidence cards are based on the first phase of the project where linguistic ethnography allowed us to gain an understanding of key modalities of social interaction for autistic adults in digital spaces.

Students worked with the evidence cards and reflected on which experiences illustrated in the cards resonated with their own social media usage.

The second activity was dedicated to exploring the use of questionable concepts, which in the original research were used for workshop 2. Questionable concepts are a way of igniting discussion around complex issues by creating provocative imaginary features. Taking specific concepts to extremes, questionable concepts help designers consider implications which are often very subtle in the “real world”. The questionable concepts used in our research were presented to students, who could read a card about each and experience them as prototypes. Students also created their own questionable concepts drafts working in small groups.

Finally, the last hands-on activity was dedicated to moving from imaginary/impractical features to designing plausible/achievable social media features which could support autistic users. The design of new features was facilitated by a new set of cards, the inspiration cards, which were used in workshop 3 of the original research.

Students created a series of features aimed at supporting the needs of autistic users, tackling some key aspects of autistic sociality explored during the evidence safari.

In the final part of the workshop the features created by students were briefly compared with features that the Autistic Adults Online participants designed in workshop 3. This comparison showed many similarities between the work of students and the work of our original autistic participants in the research. These similarities seem promising that the methods presented to the students have increased their level of understanding of the needs of autistic users engaging with social media platforms.

The students did a great job in experimenting with the methods presented and showed sensitivity to the needs of autistic users in their designs.

We will keep sharing methods and findings from Autistic Adults Online with another cohort of students, this time at the University of York, and with industry UX researchers and designers through a series of dedicated workshops, both online and in person.

To know more about future opportunities for engagement, please email

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