Participatory design in distributed systems: A case study of mediated participation among meteorologists and citizens



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Severe weather and its accompanying risks pose problems for developing user-centered information, especially during unfolding disaster. Such problems require information design solutions that address the user’s experience. While the field of technical communication offers techniques to involve users in designing information, it has yet to find ways to involve users as participants in complex information ecologies, where preplanning and basic iterative design cannot account for context-dependent communication in real time. Meteorologists systematically observwe, gather, and display weather data, making meteorological uncertainty nuanced and classifiable. For the public, however, living in weather informs much of their understanding of meteorological uncertainty. Because memory, experience, and perception are not as reliable, the public’s sense of uncertainty is not the technical concept it is for meteorologists. For this reason, meteorologists struggle to communicate the probability of weather events and urgency to take action. This dissertation analyzes the National Weather Service’s (NWS) forecasting strategies and compares their approach to a volunteer group’s efforts to bring citizens in conversation with meteorologists during severe weather. I ask how technical writers can augment meteorologists’ persuasive strategies by using participatory design to mediate communication between forecasters and users. I argue that participatory design can cultivate a shared responsibility between meteorologists and citizens to assess and respond to risk during severe weather. I conclude with a heuristic that alters participatory design to fit the dynamics of meteorological communication, specifically severe weather forecasting. The heuristic can help technical communicators apply principles of participatory design in settings where traditional applications of the methodology are impossible.



Technical communication, Weather communication, Participatory design, User-centered design, Public engagement, Science communication