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design is no place for democracy (things we learned from the drupal.org project)

Continuing in the series of ‘Things we learned from the Drupal.org project‘, this post actually starts off in the comments of the last post (design by committee vs design by community) where Keith picked me up on the statement that design should never be democratic and asked ‘Could it be? Or at least closer? And how to do that?’

Ah, democracy. It is a beautiful theory, but only – as with so many things – when applied correctly. Democracy may be great for deciding on a government, it may be great for Pop Idol (hrm..?) there may be other places it is great and noble… but design just isn’t one of those places.

When designing with a community what you should be aiming for is participation not democracy. Make your design process as open as possible, but don’t be fooled into thinking that because people ‘voted’ for a particular design, that is is the best decision, or even a good one. It’s probably not.

There are two key reasons that I believe this to be true:

  1. Good user experience is hard to evaluate when not in use – when you give people a screengrab or even a prototype to evaluate, people will tend look at things from a visual design perspective (highly subjective), and often a ‘heuristic’ perspective (usability conventions, best practice, what ‘users’ do and like etc.).These perspectives are valid and interesting, up to a point – but they come nowhere near being as valuable as the observation of a designer, or actually observing someone performing tasks that they would do every day using your design and seeing how it works for them. I’d give that trumps over popular opinion any day.By putting a design out there and asking people for their feedback, you are actually giving them a really difficult task. It’s hard enough for those of us who do it professionally (and there’s plenty of research to show that our opinions can vary wildly) – it’s not really fair to expect your community to be able to make a good decision about whether or not a design will work well based on just taking a look or clicking through a prototype.
  2. Your community are domain experts, not design experts – the best thing your community can do for you is tell you what you need to know in order to design well for them. Most of the time, they are not designers. They don’t have design training. Why are we asking them to do design work?If I could find my copy of Bill Buxton’s Sketching User Experience (which I have conveniently misplaced on the day of London UX Bookclub, d’oh!) I’d find the part in it where he talks about how ‘reading’ design, interpreting sketches, is actually as much of a design skill as doing the design in the first place – it’s just one we don’t talk about and don’t place any value on. Part of the reason designers often snort at the feedback given to them by clients (or community members) is because of a lack of design literacy in their feedback. Well, of course. They’re not designers.

Your mission when designing with community is to facilitate the community to make good design decisions by working with the information and insight they provide to give them good design and help them understand the design strategy and how and why it works.

Giving the community a true and meaningful voice in the design process is so much more empowering and respectful of them than letting them vote for which design they like the best. Letting a community choose a design by popular vote is, in my opinion, relinquishing your responsibilities as designer.

  1. Heh – from the first day you started blogging about the redesign process I’ve been waiting for *this* article. I fully concur with your own conclusions, and I appreciate how hard earned they are. ;-)

  2. Democracy is bikeshed.

    That’s why I badly need your input on the Total Drupal Administration Revamp:

    http://groups.drupal.org/node/19171

    I created a Demonstration site for the new categories, and I’m willing to work hard to drive this new proposal and concept for administrative categories home.
    It’s a monster patch for Drupal core. All I need is some additional insight from usability experts.

    If you are in IRC, please ping me.

  3. Anyone who’s been through the process from the designers perspective would agree.

    What brought it home for me in our redesign was with the logo. I looked at a bunch of variations and immediately rested on logos that appeared to have harmony. 2 days later I looked again and realized how quickly they had become mundane. It was clear that the best logos had some sort of eccentricity – they became more memorable and had a personality. Regardless of the design science behind this, what I can say is that my immediate opinion was flawed and subjective. It’s these opinions that can derail a design process.

    As a non-designer talking about design, I suddenly assume the form of an “amateur designer” – it’s quite simple and wrong to do.

    But at the end of it, our designer was very open, patient to explain the reasons for different things. When we consistently expressed concern about something he would find a compromise. As far as I can see, the Drupal.org redesign has benefited from a similar process.

  4. This is why I think Drupal’s first goal shouldn’t be to have a good user interface but to enable a good user interface.

  5. Isn’t democracy a governing method where “the people” elect a few experts that make the best decissions for them?

    And this is exactly what has happened. We elected the Drupal Foundation for their expertise. They decide what is best for drupal.org and the Drupal Foundation decided that it was best to hire you for the redesign ;)

  6. I fully aggree on this after experiences with clients on design decisions.
    I love to remember one project where I had used wireframes to communicate with our client. The project’s designer created screen designs afterwards, conforming to the application’s design guidelines and CI.
    The client would have preferred the wireframes for their design!
    He said, they were more “simple” and “clear”, nothing disturbing…
    He would ignore that they had no personality, did not comply to CI, had weird colors. If he were able to choose, he would have chosen the wrong desing.

  7. One thing I’ve consistently found is that you get the worst feedback when you directly solicit it.

    So many times I’ve presented a design and said “What do you think of this?” and then peoples attitude moves from user to “informed art critic” and you start to hear their thoughts about what they think they’d like to see.

    Occasionally I’ve had the pleasure of working with clients where I deliver a solution and promise them I’ll make any amendments they want after two weeks of use. It’s shocking the difference in the quality of feedback.

    No one talks about blue gradients, the focus of the conversation is entirely on “What can we do to make this better”.

  8. Your points are spot on. I don’t think it’s stressed enough that the most important part of usability testing is HOW you ask the questions. Even something as basic as “What was going through your mind as you tried ______”? as opposed to “How would you want to see it work?” can make a huge difference in the feedback you get.

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