Democracy And User Experience

and rarely overlap. Users may be influential, but they are seldom presented with a chance to exercise their vote when it comes to the products and services they pay for.

Feedback systems can create the semblance of a decision-making user. Typically, we give users a platform through which to express their opinions – be it a survey, a forum, or a feature request area. However, these outlets offer no guarantee of an outcome. While users are free to give feedback, their thoughts carry inconsistent authoritative weight.

However, this tide could be starting to turn. User-centricity is the focus à la mode. Already, tech titans like Microsoft are testing in-app voting options for their end users. So, in our bid to deliver the best user experience possible, should democracy enter the fray?

The Voice Of The User

Today’s users are increasingly empowered. The UX revolution, that is, the rapid rise of user-centred design, has seen users taken into more consideration than ever before. Whole teams of people now exist to focus on the user and how best to meet their needs, from user researchers through to designers through to developers.

The user is king; the whole UX department servant. The user knows it. In an abundance of affordable products and digital services – all competing on effortless and slick design, users are becoming less and less tolerant of experience blots. In the words of Jonathan Courtney: “Users don’t blame themselves anymore when they get stuck, they blame your company.”

We continuously work to make things easier for users; to remove even infinitesimal barriers in their way; to design ever-more useful, usable and enjoyable products. So, the value and attention afforded to the user have never been higher. The fact remains, though, that the user’s voice is decidedly less venerated.

All Limelight, No Microphone

Users may take centre stage, but that does not mean that they have any real microphone. Indeed, only 10% of feature requests are considered. Direct feedback is “passed to a manager” (or rather, placed into the pit where customer comments come to die.) Even dedicated voting forums end up overgrown and overlooked. The user say is far from the final one.

This is, perhaps, understandable enough. After all, giving users a channel to share their suggestions is easily done. Framing, analysing, and acting on that feedback is a less straightforward task; let alone achieving democracy-by-design.

This begs the question: why bother to affect interest if we do not usually intend action? We know that collecting user feedback is essential. We know that it is generally a good idea to listen to customer criticism; generally a bad idea to ignore it.

However, and here is the crux – we also know that acting on user comments is often neither feasible nor fruitful. While, in theory, democracy in UX may be a golden idea, in practice it could well be damaging.

The Henry Ford Paradigm

We now come to the oft-quoted (but dubiously attributed) Henry Ford quip: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Although we would rarely espouse this kind of hubris-inspired thinking today, elements of the logic ring true.

It is true, for example, that it is the expert’s job to innovate. The onus of producing game-changing ideas should not fall on the user. However, innovation can certainly start from a foundation of user input.

In a broad sense, users always know what they want. They might not have a detailed, granular or finely conceptualised catalogue of their wants and needs, but really, why would they? That level of consideration is your job. Also, your job is to read between the lines; to empathise with the user and analyse their actions, needs and feedback.

From this angle, “faster horses” is merely an entreaty for faster transportation. Acting in the user’s favour is not necessarily the same as following their exact request. Instead, the UX designer’s job is to understand and execute the request in a way that improves usability, convenience and pleasure – to come up with the car.

User feedback is never invalid. Though it may not come to you as a perfectly planned blueprint, the core needs and pain points expressed remain just as insightful. However, does the inherent value of the user’s voice mean we should design a more democratic user experience?

Designing Democracy

Designing democracy directly into the user experience is a thorny task. Firstly, from a pure design angle, adding peripheral interface elements is always tricky. After all, most users want as little interface clutter as possible. Combining elements that are not essential for getting them from A to B as efficiently as possible is generally inadvisable.

Secondly, and even thornier, is the challenge of creating a feedback framework that is focused, relevant and contextualised. How can you easily create an engaging system that lets users exercise their voice, while simultaneously reining in and regulating that voice?

UX designers must tread carefully. There is a clear need to understand the user and factor in their thoughts, but those thoughts must also be herded and interpreted with care. Your users are proficient in the domain; not in design. So, giving users an explicit vote on feature and product design is not as straightforward as it seems.

Current Canvassing Methods

Today’s digital products and services increasingly incorporate feedback systems. Some include an actual vote functionality, though the extent to which this voting is later actioned is unclear. Most commonly, you will see:

  • User forums: The user forum is a classic feedback tool. It allows product managers to collect user comments at scale and build a community of engaged users sharing their ideas. Unfortunately, it can also become a sprawling pile-up with no end game. With so much user activity and little company action, forums can gradually devolve into user venting platforms.
  • Rating/review systems: Rating and review systems vary in detail and value. A star or smiley face system, for example, is easy for the user but not necessarily insightful for the UX designer. Meanwhile, open reviews are informative, but may not cover the specific topics that align with your goals.
  • Traditional survey tools: The user survey is a great way to collect specific comments on relevant areas of interest. However, they are time-consuming and can feel onerous to complete. Moreover, since surveys are usually issued separately from the product or service to which they pertain, they may not always feel smooth.
  • In-app feedback: In-app feedback might come in the form of a dedicated area. Alternatively, more recently, users can also use tools to point to specific visual elements (a button, an image, an instruction) and give direct feedback right there. So, in-app feedback can be useful for both ongoing and directed feedback.
  • In-app voting: Office Outlook users might have seen in-app voting in Microsoft’s recent user experience update. This example simply asked users whether a planned upcoming change was helpful with a binary vote. However, the idea could also extend into upvoting useful features, downvoting buggy/unhelpful features, or non-binary voting on product roadmaps and feature requests.

Adding Meaning To The Method

Wanting to give users a voice via one or several of these methods is all well and good. However, what do you intend to do with that voice? As Bruce Temkin puts it: “Don’t waste customers’ time asking them questions unless you are prepared to act on what they say.”

A half-baked canvassing attempt will do more damage than good. If your feedback methods exist only as a veneer of user empowerment, rather than to drive positive change, your users will quickly disengage. (And no doubt, become disillusioned.)

Importantly, you can only act on what the user says if you expend the time and effort to understand their motivations; if you create questions that drive their feedback towards a specific goal. Being a yes-person is not the answer. Nor is giving users a vote in a bid to include them; only to invalidate that voting system by ignoring it forever more.

So, always refer back to your objectives. Seek to listen to the user and interpret their underlying motivations, not to follow every last request to the letter. Only then can you maximise the value driven from the user’s voice.

To Democratise, Or Not To Democratise?

Increasingly, the services and experiences we design strive to be user-centric. So, it stands to reason that feedback systems and active user listening are on the rise. However, is democracy in UX a forward or backward leap?

It comes down to definition and execution. A true democracy, where every user votes on every issue, would only lead to a host of complications in practice. However, a focussed user canvassing method – one designed around your product vision – can help drive meaningful, user-centric change.

So, to make democracy work for your users, you have to be aware of its limitations. My vote in the ballot box? Understanding your users, listening to their voice and abstracting a level or two above their requests is more empowering and respectful than giving them a binary vote.

(Lead image: Depositphotos)

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