Purpose: People with cognitive disabilities have a right to an inclusive society, and to have access to services and products that meet their specific needs. Participatory design (PD) represents a potentially effective way to ensure these rights, because users become influencers of the technological development and design process, are actively involved in the customization of that technology and develop a relationship with the designers/developers. Literature suggests that user involvement in technology development produces better products and has shown that this process offers users a voice and the process is also conducive to mutual learning between researchers and participants
Originality/value: This paper adds to the rather limited literature on applying Participatory Design approaches in the development of products for people with neurodevelopmental disabilities. We will present such a process for the development of a Virtual World with people with autism. Although literature suggests that user involvement produces better outcomes, adopting this approach is not straightforward. The paper will describe in detail the contribution the participants made in every phase but also the limitations of applying a PD approach with a neurodiverse population, in order for them to be equal partners in the process and be involved in a meaningful way.
Design/methodology/approach: Here we will present the development of a Virtual World platform, having as a starting point a minimally viable initial version. This was followed by the creation of a networking framework to test each feature of the VW, which allowed connected users, most of whom on the autistic spectrum, to interact with each other in real time in the VW, and to see each other's effects. Stress testing sessions were initiated with a mixed group of 15 users, eight of whom with autism (seven male and one female). Ten of the participants were male and five were female.
Findings: Even though the platform is feature-complete, its code is still in development; features can be improved/expanded upon, which necessitates further testing. The most commonly flagged issues from the stress testing were requests for videos/text manuals, the camera controls and chat message errors. These were implemented/fixed or added to the feature roadmap. "Heavy avatar customization" was also suggested, which has conceptual merit, but is not a priority.
Implications: Participatory Design is an inclusive approach that addresses personal needs and preferences, matching up the person with the tools and environments to ensure equity and inclusion. The Virtual World whose development is described in this paper has been used for communication skills training with autistic young adults. It could be used for other social, life, academic and vocational skills training. This type of training through VR/VW may help enhance the employment-related skills of neurodiverse populations (and thus empower independent living) and has the potential for broader implementation and wider access in terms of distance learning.