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.


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.


[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

[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

[8] Zipf’s Law. (n.d.). Retrieved May 12, 2008 from

[9] Viégas, F. & Wattenberg, M. (2008). Many eyes, democratizing visualization. PARC Forum, Jan 31, 2008

[10] Wilson, C. (2008). The wisdom of the chaperones; Digg, Wikipedia and the myth of Web 2.0 democracy. Slate.

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



  1. A “more democratically responsible user experience…” what an interesting, and I think useful, framing of the topic. “Out-voicing” by some polemic or aggravated group over other perhaps more civil but less aggressive ones is a real problem with user generated content, as it is with humanity in general, I’d say. Though not to acquiesce. Tribes that discourage voices are not unlike those that discourage votes: both are a bane to social health. And yes, IAs, interaction designers and UX strategists should be concerned about this, not least because we’re concerned with people (as in We The…), or because we’re often now in a position to influence human-human as well as human-computer interaction, but because the widest possible participation serves our media enterprise objectives as well.

    Chris Wilson, in your later paragraph, seems to agree with Barry Schwartz, who say says our usual response, to generate rules and incentives fails us. I liken Wilson’s principled chaperons to Schwartz’ moral heroes:

    “Something in the air,” I suppose, as I just wrote “How Sociable Is Your Media?” last weekend, around similar ideas. “If people rule in your design process, then it is essentially a democratic project:”

    Principals of many kinds are essential to design, and probably always have been. Perhaps us veteran/designers give a little more thought to how design principals relate to democratic ones, but I hope not.

  2. The particiaption inequality in general is an interesting topic. There is some parallels between the ‘participation inequality’ online and actual political participation. In The Netherlands only 3% of the population is an actual member of a political party, and of that membership of the largest parties roughly a third of the members is active in politicis: 1% of the population. The number of politically active people in former Russia was about 10% of the population. That might point in the direction of the participation inequality as a normal ratio for social activities in populations.
    But then the perceived participation inequality holds for Youtube, Flickr and Wikipedia but is different for other social media such as Myspace, Facebook and Hyves. And then there are possible differences of online social behavior in very large populations (such as the worldwide community of internetusers) and smaller populations (national, city or neighbourhood). In our experiences in neighbourhoods (populations of between 10.000 and 20.000 people) we see different behaviour and are not certain which ‘participation inequalities’ will hold.
    I think that, before making assumptions about a ‘participation inequlity’ online and in real life, we need to research both more carefully.

  3. This would make for an interesting research project to test out further.

    While I recognize the importance of contextual design it is very challenging for a broad audience such as on a global corporate website – best practice design and innovation (as defined by Western standards) are not optional. My experience has been that the content – messaging and language translation are more important than the metaphor.

    The industry standards described in the article have in many ways leveled the field for how we interact online (at least in the business world). Emerging countries, companies, etc., looking to do business in the global market need to get up to speed in how that world works – this may sound like technological imperialism – but how do we do this without dumbing-down (my apologies for the pejorative) of the design to meet the lowest common denominator?

  4. Great article necessitating the society’s influence on the changing perspective and use of the web.

    Technologically advanced societies follow a typical pattern of change and growth. Initially, it will be solely technology that will drive what a user experiences. The features/ attributes of a product basically pick themselves primarily due to lack of options on what technology could provide them. The features that are going to be left behind for subsequent ‘versions’ to incorporate would again be a call for technology to take. With advancement in technology and due to the rising need of bringing in that extra to appear different, stay afloat and above the competition the layer of additional considerations would creep in.

    Social media is still in its fledgling stage. There is a lot of excitement and effort underway at exploring what it can offer and the boundaries it can cross which the traditional web was not able to. It is now limited to a certain degree by imagination and to an extent, access and awareness of the right kind of technologies (in the lesser technologically advanced societies). To even recommend that a social media setting is not appropriate, a certain degree of maturity to incorporate the layer of additional considerations has to creep in.

    One culture might define one set of best practices based on limitations exactly in the way a different culture defines it based on its attributes. Similar to the presence or absence of certain navigation elements on e-commerce sites (which have gained acceptance to a large extent), it would be very interesting to note what kind of interaction patterns people start associating with social media and how best practices emerge across cultures and find ‘universal’ acceptance.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    The theme I see running through them is one of “context.” Michael, Bert, Lori, and Junaid seem to have framed their responses and insights in terms of their respective ‘unique rosters of experiences.”

    Michael, I liked your use of the word “tribes” because it’s a perfect descriptor for a group of like-minded people, a band of individuals together because of a position that may or may not be constrained by geographical border, nationality, race, etc. Given the social opportunities available through technology worldwide, “tribe” is particularly apropos—it all depends on the context. However, I purposefully moved away from the use of “rule” in my article because it inherently suggests power of one group over another, even in a democratically structured populace. Just because a majority emerges (however fair the process may be), it doesn’t mean the minorities’ interests should be dismissed. (That was what I hoped to convey in the article, at any rate.) And I’m not sure I understand your last sentence. It seems counter-intuitive—did I miss your point?

    Bert, thanks for the stats. Perhaps the participation inequity you mention is contextual and can different for each group, given a specific networking/social site and how its users might be categorized. For example, what is the level of inequity within Facebook users when considering behaviors based on national boundaries versus behaviors of different age groups? Indeed we do need to do more research, but I think the studies and results will need to be contextualized in order to maintain validity.

    Lori, it appears that the contexts of your business goals are a priority. (“Language translations are more important than the metaphor.”) It’s a design decision you’ve weighed, and that sensibility is what is key to a democratic responsibility. As to a “lowest common denominator,” why does the multicultural aspect have to be at a single level? Why not make several levels available (perhaps woven into a single website)? As the groups you identify emerge into the marketplace, they can learn to walk before they run. Their participation may hold value to you as much as you hold value to them. So for those strong in the global marketplace, wouldn’t an iterative strategy be reasonable in context of both current and future business relationships?

    Junaid, I understand your point about patterns and early technology-centric user experiences. But I think in many respects, we have evolved enough such that cultures just starting to embrace technology don’t need to start from scratch and repeat those patterns. They have the many elements of a global experience to draw upon—they don’t need to repeat others’ growing pains. The growing pains they do experience, however, will likely be in context of their own users, economies, social dynamics, etc. That way, what they learn will be especially relevant to them. What might be interesting is watching those technologically-emerging groups quickly catch up to more advanced groups’ “fledgling stages” of social media. (In other words, emerging groups may have the advantage because they will be free of the technology-centric history the more advanced groups have lived through. As unencumbered newbies, perhaps they participate in social media so innately that they teach advanced tech users a thing or two!)

  6. I totally agree with your comment that cultures have many elements of a global experience to draw upon and that they don’t need to repeat others’ growing pains. Which is why, I strongly believe, the rise of social media has been this rapid.

    The growing pains this culture is experiencing are different from what has been experienced earlier mainly because of the extremely rapid rise of social media and the technologies supporting it. I believe that the primary factors holding back technologically advanced cultures from growing even faster (if that was even remotely possible) is the limit of human imagination and the overwhelming nature of this rapid rise – we have a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ situation right now and it requires that additional effort and interest to stay on top of it.

    It would be interesting to delve deeper into what this would actually mean to UX and all of our methods, processes and best practices. I see us UX practitioners ideally placed to influence interaction patterns, interface designs and architect information in social media environments. We are in a position to drive social media best practices and what people start accepting universally as perhaps the ‘social media norm’. The good thing is that this cannot be a one-way design anymore and it will be the users who will easily have the biggest say on this (Two-way Design – Design 2.0).

    On the flip side of this, we UX practitioners already have a tough time agreeing on a name for ourselves. These developments will just add to the confusion on what we should call ourselves with the social media tag in our job title. We already have a ‘Social Media Analyst’ role ( which has been gaining acceptance and it would be interesting to see more such titles gaining universal acceptance as the field matures.

  7. Two thoughts from Dave Malouf seemed relevant to this article and the comments, bulleted items from his Interaction 09 powerpoint “Foundations of IxD: A path to IxD critique.”

    1.”It isn’t the power of our tools that matter, but it is knowing what to do with them.”

    2. “Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.” –Ani Defranco

  8. The Web is developing like a human, and when you think of where we are now, the buzz is “social, social, social.”
    We not only have a new social space to explore, but also have a training job ahead of us. As we step into common
    space, we see humanity with all it’s warts. Spammers and swindlers are lurking around every corner one traverses on the way to a goal. But the goals can be gold nuggets.

    In order for the mechanism to work properly, it will need a little widsom from Abe Maslow. We will need to manage our
    new social world, and good management requires mentoring. Maslow would look at the Web and apply eupsychian management principles. If we start with his #1 assumption that everyone in the group can be trusted, then we will obviously need more than
    one Web. I think he would make two: the D-web and the B-web, along with a set of vocabularistic and reputation-oriented passports to the B-web. The rest would be left behind as noise and not drag down the B-web. Closest analog now is .edu.

    Perhaps “eupsychianizing” could be added to democratizing!

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