Lessons on the 2016 Election from User-Centered Design

Thanks to @AnthonyDAvella for spurring the conversation that led to these musings.

There are key principles from digital business and design that our political establishment should pay close attention to in the wake of last week’s election.

A little background…

Prior to last week, I continued to be astonished at the lengths business leaders would go to to convince themselves of false truths that happen to be good for their status quo. For example, I’ve received no fewer than 7 pitches this year from well-funded startups based on the following premise: “Wouldn’t it be great if influencers controlled their own social audiences and could monetize them in places and in ways of their choosing? Join us and it shall be so.” My response is always the same: “Sure, that would be wonderful. Except users – real PEOPLE- are on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. They aren’t using your thing. So what have you got that’s going to siphon away their attention? It better be UH-MAZING.” It’s an age-old tale of firms looking consumers not as they are, but how they’d like them to be.

Suffice it to say I’ve become a bit dogmatic about my allegiance to the user, especially in the face of those who seem to forget who it is who’s really going to judge our products. Mine is a seemingly simple mantra: Ask users what they want, watch what they DO, and be brutally honest about what you find. It’s the only way to build great digital products and businesses.

What does this have to do with the election?

It seems glaringly obvious that the political establishment – in both parties – failed to adhere to the most basic precepts of user-centered design. Evidently, they didn’t ask ALL the users what they thought – or potentially an even greater sin, simply ignored the users whose feedback didn’t align with their strategies. “You’re wrong, and I can prove it” isn’t a satisfactory stance when dealing with real people, because real users are free to leave your website, and real voters are free to leave your party.

So, just like good product designers who’ve received a round of somewhat jarring UI feedback, we must go back to the drawing board and design a better product for the user – not for ourselves. Just as companies like those I mentioned earlier aren’t listening to users (they’re thinking about the influencers they’re trying to recruit), the political establishment wasn’t listening to all the voters. You might say that I am wrong, cry foul and instead say that the establishment was listening to voters, but it simply couldn’t beat a message based on our basest tribal instincts. To you I say this: I am unwilling to accept that we live in a world where negative passions always defeat reason and kindness. It’s on us to have listened more closely to our users and to have designed a better message – a better product – for the American people.

Oh and by the way, this is NOT a message for one specific party. Republicans nominated a candidate who departed sharply from their core values, and Democrats lost the election. We’ve witnessed the victory of a candidate who offered the American people a product that is fundamentally inconsistent with major parts of both party platforms. This message applies equally to all in the political establishment who didn’t focus enough on their user – the American voter.