The Failure of Democracy, from a UX Perspective

Defenders of democracy in the US tell us the democratic process works. They point to challenges overcome by the electorate. They point to the balance of powers or the judicial system, as evidence of this. A simple look at usability may suggest that quite the opposite is true. And, while democracy is important to our freedom as citizens, it is not a concrete institution. It may well be time for some revision.

protest in hong kong 2019 june 12

Democracy Can Be Better, by Design
The debate about “good design” is ongoing. How we get to “good” design or even define “good” can be subjective. There are countless theories of what makes good design. Designers, organizations and scholars continue this debate. One aspect of “good” design, for products, systems or services, which may be universal, is utility. It is from the perspective of utility that we may see the failings of democracy. It might still be good design for some, but it is not a democracy for the people by the people, as intended.

From utility alone we see, with mere cursory investigation, that US democracy fails. Democracy is either broken or useless for half or more of the voting age citizens of the United States. We know this from historic voting outcomes. The highest percentages of eligible voters actively voting, is 58 percent. This is, according to Pew research, an historic number of eligible voters exercising their rights.

If half the adult population do not use their own system, the system is either useless or broken. Or intended for an entirely different purpose. Can a system used by only half of an adult population be representative? Some cite apathy, laziness, or such for the low voter numbers. The reality remains that roughly half of US adults see little value in democracy. They have either no use for the process or are so frustrated with the system that they don’t even bother.

We’ve seen this even when all goes well. Even with record turnout, there is still debate about the efficacy of the system. There is still challenge to whether the system works, even for those who do turn out to use it.

How Do We Know It’s Broken
The disenfranchised have spoken. Democracy is broken. We’ve seen it in the streets of every US City in 2020. This has been a remarkable year for highlighting the failures of democracy. Democratic systems and municipalities have disregarded massive clusters of the population. These people have little to no recourse. Elected officials maintain institutions designed to disenfranchise and marginalize populations. Some may read this and say that the institution of democracy works. Yet protests around the country suggest that this system does not work for all, as intended. If this were a usability test, it would be clear that this system, this model, is due for a redesign.

What Can We Do About It?
User Experience professionals can see the failings of democracy by investigating usage. We’re all empowered to vote and have that right under law. But, half of the population chooses not to engage their right. A percentage of the other half claims inherent flaws (see 2020 election voter fraud). So, if half the users don’t need it or don’t use it, would this not suggest that it is time for a revision? Might it be time to apply design-thinking strategies to democracy. If we do this for the products and services we consume daily, why would we exclude democracy? If the system is not viable, desirable and feasible, is not the system flawed?

We have an existing model, the democratic prototype. We have user feedback. The feedback is not good. So, what can we do to change this? We can start with empathy and emotion. We can apply design thinking strategies and determine how democracy makes users feel. We can determine how successful each of the steps in the democratic process is for users. We can then account for these feelings in the process. Feelings serve a purpose.

From an empathetic perspective, we can define the problems we face as users of the system. We can develop ideas for a new model; we can ideate and develop a new prototype. We should consider our current model a prototype, one we’ve been testing for more than 200 years. There is a way to make democracy work for everyone. There is a way to iterate the design and represent all peoples within a system. The intent of democracy is to do that. We need to consider democracy, this democratic system, a prototype. We can stop compounding the problem. We can stop amending and reinforcing this system as the only option.

As voting-age citizens of the United States, we should consider how this system works. We need to determine where it needs improvement. We need not, perhaps must not, let the system remain in place as it is, where it works only for the enfranchised. For democracy to work, it must work for us all, not only those in positions of power. As a democracy, we are all, by default in positions of power. We must exercise this power and communicate how the system makes us feel. We must account for those feelings in the prototype, testing and design of this system.

Portland Oregon State. USA 06.12.2020. A painted city after the rallies. BLACK LIFE IS MATTER, painted monument, vandalism

Democracy and Emotion or Empathy by Design
Democratic countries may have gone too long ignoring the role of feelings. Feelings build institutions. Democratic institutions stem from fear, the fear of misrepresentation or oppression. Fear is in the founding documentation. And from this fear we see the inherent oppression. From this comes another emotion, anger. Anger stems from not getting what we want or need. For as advanced as our civilization has become, we can further ignore emotion to our peril.

We may no longer have to shout in fear to alert our friends of a tiger. There is no need to scream in rage at attacking marauders. We live in relative democratic safety. But we cannot live without emotion. Emotions are community. Emotions keep us together. Emotions are our shared experience. We see this in shared anger and outrage. Protests are an emotional response. We have designed social systems without emotion or with fear as a motivating factor. We are reacting now to our frustration in natural, biological ways. If enough people get angry or frustrated, it can destroy a structure or a system. If enough people are frustrated with a product, they abandon the product and a brand fails. Should democracy suffer the same fate? Can it suffer the same fate when we have nowhere left to go?

We must account for the tasks, the aims and the emotion. We must know and acknowledge emotion to be human, to be citizens. We must note the frustrations. The mere thought of engaging in democracy can be elicit emotional responses. This is our shared human experience, the user experience. Democracy can embrace this, must embrace this. We are nowhere without our emotion. We are no one, nothing. Products, systems or services designed without emotion are much the same. We must establish a new basis of good design for democracy to continue. We can leverage good design and embrace the user experience in democracy. We have the need. We now must create a system to meet this need and test the emotional response to the system. We can then make it practical to reproduce. Once we’ve done that, we need to test and tune and test again.

Democracy is a process, like any good product, system or design. It’s time to start iterating Democracy 2.0. Let the design process, including emotions, determine our fate. It is a democracy, let’s not let others dictate.