Tyranny of the majority

I’m a big fan of democracy. I believe that every citizen should have equal access to power, that a community should express its values and priorities through elected officials, and that the outcome of an election is a critical expression of the state of that community.

Still, there are limits to the utility of democracy. You don’t ask your friends to vote on the probable cause of your stomachache. Newspapers don’t poll their readers when they’re deciding what leads to pursue. Our elected officials don’t ask us to decide whether a complicated bailout plan is the right course of action for stabilizing our financial system … (Umm, actually, I take that back).

Makers of the excellent publishing platform WordPress recently asked their users to vote on certain UI decisions in its next release. They didn’t ask users to design the UI from scratch, but they did ask some strategic, fundamental UI questions:

Q.2: The La-Z-Boy goes: (a) to the left of the TV; (b) to the right of the table with the pizza on it; (c) under the reading light; (d) other: [please explain]

Here’s a screenshot of the whole survey. The survey authors tried to be helpful by providing rationale for each option, but it sounded a little like the engineers at BMW asking me where I want my steering wheel and what intervals I want on the wiper switch. On one hand, it’s a nice gesture; on the other, these questions are fundamental to the user experience of their product. Shouldn’t it be the business of BMW to determine the appropriate implementation?

The point is: There ARE right answers to these questions. They are not matters of taste. The key to determining the answers, however, is deeply connected with a long-term strategy for the user experience. Does WordPress have a long-term strategy for its UI? To use a counter-example: Facebook could have asked its users whether the News Feed was a good feature. (As you may recall, users initially hated it). Facebook kept it, with a slight modification, and it is now the foundation of the tool. That’s strategy at work.

On a more philosophical note: When there is expertise in a field, why pretend that there isn’t? When Wes Anderson makes a movie, he doesn’t revisit the first principles of filmmaking and decide anew whether film editing is really something that an “expert” should be hired to do. He hires an editor because he knows that the editor will bring out the best in the film. I would argue that UI designers have a similar effect on the technology underlying a product. They’re able to craft a cohesive whole from the disparate elements. Search is a disparate element that needs a place in the cohesive whole; why ask the community to decide where it fits in the experience?

Doug LeMoine

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