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.