Designing the Democratic

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The role of the information architect (IA), interaction designer, or user experience (UX) designer is to help create architecture and interactions which will impact the user in constructive, meaningful ways. Sometimes the design choices are strategic and affect a broad interaction environment; other times they may be tactical and detailed, affecting few. But sometimes the design choices we make are not good enough for the users we’re trying to reach. Often a sense of democratic responsibility is missing in the artifacts and experiences which result from our designs and decisions.

Noted scholar on democracy James Banks simplifies its definition: democracy means rule by the people.1 Philosopher and pragmatist John Dewey, however, interprets democracy more deeply as a way of living together as well as a kind of government.2 A “way of living together,” in our evolving globalization, means one or more different cultures in contact and interacting. Though this interaction across and between cultures has always existed to a greater or lesser degree, technology enables a historically unequaled degree of such interaction.

Whether it’s clearly recognized cultures interacting (i.e., the business practices between an Australian firm and a Chinese corporation), or less obvious subcultures interacting with a dominant culture (yuppies, castes, etc.), every member is entitled to democratic representation within the user experience. This means acknowledgement of, respect for, and empowerment regarding cultural dynamics of those for whom we design. Users may be of diverse cultures categorized by social class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnic identity, age, racial group, industry, language, ableness, political power and control, and technological capability to name a few.  

I’d like to discuss several elements of democratic responsibility we might have some control over, touching briefly on potentially deeper implications for the design decisions we make. It’s folly to try to establish a canon of best practices in this regard because each of us is informed by a unique roster of experiences—personal, professional, and cultural—when making decisions that influence the user experience. Instead, I am suggesting that we get in the habit of reflecting on our decisions with special attention to the degree to which we are meeting our democratic responsibility.

One-way Design

The most common type of user experience occurs when a user interacts with artifacts in an onscreen ecosystem authored by someone else. Online shopping, music downloads, and rich internet applications are easy examples.

For this type of user experience, generally speaking, designing toward a democratic responsibility is under the control of the design and development team. They are in charge of the content, language and tone, visuals and layout, database management, and all the other aspects of making an end product. Whatever this team comes up with is what the user experiences. So, in addition to the regular tenets of information architecture and design we practice, careful thought about the cultural dynamics of the users is another necessary level of responsibility.

One thing we can do, particularly during the early stages of the design and development cycle, is to recognize the influence of our own culture on our methods, standards, practices, and expectations. Because  a great deal of the computer technology used today was standardized by American and Western European cultures, those of us from those cultures may take for granted many things that make their way into the onscreen ecosystem: feedback style, metaphors, icons, business processes, decision-making, the semantics of buttons or functions, problem solving, aesthetics, image use, etc. Hegemony of these dominant features within most aspects of the technology potentially leads to ineffectiveness ranging from confusion to offense in members of other cultures. To put it in IA-speak, the right information stops getting to the right people at the right time.

By being aware of our own cultural proclivities, we can reflect on our influences and how they may be at odds with those of other cultures. Then we can architect a more democratically responsible user experience. To not do this, particularly for cultures dominant in computing technology, becomes a form of technological imperialism where some users “remain at the mercy of other people’s decisions.”3 Some even consider this a sort of ethical imperialism based on one’s culture dictating what is “good” and “bad” and what “ought to be good.”4 For example, the presence or absence of certain navigation elements on an e-commerce site may inadvertently validate participation by one demographic while disregarding the needs of another. It’s imperialism with modern resources, imperialism in the form of business practices and popular culture imposed on those with less power.5

This has more serious implications as emerging countries struggle to participate in the global marketplace. For example, bandwidth-heavy interactions defeat the helpful intentions between the United States and Kenya as the US tries to share information with medical institutions there.6 What message is this sending to Kenyans and how does it affect their experience? What can IAs and designers do to maintain the integrity of the interaction and content while at the same time accommodating Kenya’s infrastructure?

Representing multiple cultures in an online environment is a challenge, and doing it poorly risks the participation by one or more groups. At best, you might lose them; at worst, you could marginalize or alienate them. For example, the wording of a survey or a form may perpetuate stereotypes, unintentionally convey an agenda, or reinforce control of one group over another. Or persuasion links may impact interaction patterns by other-culture users in unexpected ways, resulting in incomplete communication or lost revenue. For example, because of cultural influences on their mental modeling or on the perceived value of using technology, members of a given group may not understand the organization of a taxonomy you’ve instituted; it can be tricky to establish paths or processes so that users from differing societies can get to crucial features or pages.

Interaction patterns and hierarchy in rich internet applications may be another trouble spot. Because usage patterns, priorities, and functions differ from culture to culture, naturally these differences would need to be reflected or acknowledged onscreen. Users in some cultures may not yet understand the newer interface metaphors of sliders, accordion panels, and other manipulatives. Or they may need to control and organize information in ways that are meaningful to them but have not been considered by the designers and developers. For example, some cultures think contextually, others in a linear fashion. For the IA in this case, integrating a task list function and a calendar suddenly requires deeper cultural consideration.

There will always be instances when there is no choice but to make a design decision which favors one culture over another. But we must make the effort to reflect on the implications of our choices in the hope of coming up with a solution that will result in a positive user experience. How will design decisions affect the function or the business goal for other cultures? How will they affect the meaning of the experience for targeted users?

A good illustration, based more on experience design than IA, is modern coffee makers which may alienate an older demographic (subculture). These devices are often confounding because they rely on assumed knowledge of digital programming and a button-click interaction. How does it feel when you want coffee and have no choice but to interact with a device you don’t understand? Instead of feeling empowered or respected, you’re more likely to feel discounted and helpless. It should be a simple task—running hot water over ground coffee beans—but instead it becomes complex and defeating for that group of users.

Social Media

The need for another kind of democratic responsibility emerges as the use of technology evolves. Social media, commonly labeled Web 2.0, is a stage for users to both obtain and supply content for the interaction or technology space. Examples of such collaboration and information sharing include wikis, social networking sites, folksonomies, and shared databases. How can the characteristics of social networking and Web 2.0 bolster democracy? How can they hinder it?

Nielsen says that online networks that rely on users to contribute content suffer from a participation inequality—most users don’t participate very much.7 They use the site in a traditional “one-way” fashion. Based on statistics which mirror Zipf’s law,8 he has developed a rule he calls the 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users read or observe, but don’t contribute
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions

For example, Wikipedia sometimes draws heat because a relative few are contributing a relative majority of the work. (For Wikipedia, the stats suggest that 1% of the users author 50% of the content.)

For as much as social media sites put power in the hands of the people, or crowdsourcing, it can mean an opportunity for revisionist interpretations of history, people, accomplishments, etc. Or, less diabolically, if only certain groups of people contribute, they “out-voice” others and the content becomes unintentionally biased. Users from a technologically emerging nation, for instance, may be at a particular disadvantage because they do not understand the benefits of social networking or how to effectively contribute. Or because of social mores they may not feel comfortable making contributions which become public. As a result, for example, information about one’s own country might be contributed by a foreign visitor who doesn’t have the insight of a native.

Another aspect of social media is the visual elements within a participatory ecosystem. The graphics and visualizations themselves become artifacts with social appeal, impacting the subsequent direction of participation.9 These visualizations might support personal or group identities (encouraging robust participation), they might be relatively neutral, or they might marginalize or ostracize certain people or groups (i.e., the visuals may be defamatory, perhaps inaccurate or manipulative, or they may not be understood by certain groups).

In all cases, social media begs for democratic responsibility from those who are given power to influence that technological environment. As a solution, Chris Wilson suggests we move from “wisdom of the crowds” to “wisdom of the chaperones.”10 This means practicing stewardship and offering principles to guide those contributing to social media. Again, there is no set of rules for accomplishing this. Each social media space is unique in context and requires its own examination to establish a democratic responsibility. In fact, it may be up to us to recommend that a social media setting is not appropriate. Perhaps cultural aspects of the user base mean that some things are better placed in a one-way ecosystem instead of in a participatory setting.

Reflection

As IAs and UX designers, it’s important to convey the meaningfulness and relevance of democratic responsibility to other cultures or those in developing countries. Sometimes it may seem like we are making more work for ourselves or working to a low common denominator (like the connection to the Kenyan medical institutions). But by demonstrating these qualities with the technology, we encourage an evolving participation which ultimately raises standards. Or the result may be ambassadorial efforts which further the mutuality between two or more culturally diverse populations—a responsiveness which is necessary for healthy globalization. Perhaps the onus is on the more technologically advanced societies to model this democratic responsibility so technologically emerging cultures will more easily understand the value of it as they grow.

Marshall McLuhan’s idea of the Global Village involves the profound impact of information technology on the development of complex relationships within and between cultures. But in order to understand another culture, we must understand our own. In our respective disciplines, we make design decisions based on context, so it’s not hard to see how we can make democratically responsible design decisions relative to the contextual understanding of culture.

The habit of reflecting on the choices and recommendations we make is a big step in the right direction. Designing requires a balance of reason and intuition, an impetus to act, and an ability to reflect on actions taken.11 It is reflection we undertake conscientiously that makes us good IAs, good designers…and good citizens.

References

[1] Banks, J. A., Banks, C. A. M., Cortés, C. E., Hahn, C. L., Merryfield, M. M., Moodley, K. A., et al. (2004). Democracy and diversity: Principles and concepts for educating citizens in a global age. Seattle: University of Washington, Center for Multicultural Education, College of Education, 17.

[2] Dewey, J. (1961). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan. (Original work published 1916.)

[3] Nielsen, J. (2006). The digital divide: the three stages. Alertbox, 20 Nov. 2006  http://www.useit.com/alertbox/digital-divide.html.

[4] Martin, J. N., & Nakayama, T. K. (2000). Intercultural communication in context (2nded.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Co.

[5] See Banks, Democracy and diversity: Principles and concepts for educating citizens in a global age, 20.

[6] Kirch, D. G. (2008). Supporting a culture of collaboration across professional medicine. MedBiquitous Annual conference, 13-15 May 2008. Baltimore, MD.

[7] Nielsen, J. (2006). Participation inequality: encouraging more users to contribute. Alertbox, 9 Oct. 2006  http://www.useit.com/alertbox/participation_inequality.html

[8] Zipf’s Law. (n.d.). Retrieved May 12, 2008 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zipf%27s_law

[9] Viégas, F. & Wattenberg, M. (2008). Many eyes, democratizing visualization. PARC Forum, Jan 31, 2008 http://www.parc.com/cms/get_article.php?id=715

[10] Wilson, C. (2008). The wisdom of the chaperones; Digg, Wikipedia and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy. Slate. http://www.slate.com/id/2184487/

[11] Rowland, G. (1993). Designing and instructional design. Educational technology research and development, 41(1). 79-91.

 

Cues, The Golden Retriever

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In every waking moment, our brains are processing the stimuli in our environment and responding, consciously and unconsciously, to what is going on around us. This may mean something simple like stopping automatically at a crosswalk based on the color of the traffic signal. Or it may mean something more deliberate, like deciding to turn left after orienting yourself by reading a street sign.

Both consciously and unconsciously, we also make decisions while interacting in an onscreen environment. We move automatically during routine tasks and through familiar interfaces. But what do we do when the interaction onscreen requires a very deliberate and thoughtful interaction—how do we determine the correct response to the stimulus? We need cues to help us draw from our experience and carry out an acceptable response. Cues are like little cognitive helper elves who prompt us toward a suitable interaction, reminding us of what goes where, when, and how. Cues can be singular reminders, like a string tied around your finger, or they can be contextual reminders, like remembering that you also need carrots when you are shopping for potatoes and onions in a supermarket. Continue reading Cues, The Golden Retriever