Defining the civic experience

I want to try to define the discrete field of Civic Experience and its object . I know there has been people that have done it before, so I’d like to add some examples from my own experience. The article starts with a brief explanation of the diversity of User Experience practices and then it focuses in how it relates to citizens and public institutions. It closes with a call to all ethically-minded designers to help empower their fellow citizens.

History of User Experience

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us”
Marshal McLuhan

The term User Experience came to be not too long ago -like most things in the internet, actually- by a merger of several different disciplines: usability, anthropology, marketing, psychology, engineering, neurosciences, and pinch of statistics and ergonometrics. This blend provides the tools to optimize the experience that people have with and around design products, reducing their frustration and making them happier.

User Experience Design diagram of related disciplines: Information architecture, architecture, content, visual design, human factors, industrial design, sound design, interaction design and human-computer interaction.
by Dan Saffer

I started designing websites when I was a teenager, and I was already working professionally when UX emerged as a discipline, and I was thrilled to understand that I could focus on taking care of the most human part of the ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies). I saw this industry like most industries, as dominated by a few bigger companies, but also very prone, by it’s own nature, to allow small groups to have a big impact very quickly. This kind of social mobility allows some start-ups to acquire millions of users literally overnight, and to lose them at the same rate as well.

Gartner Hype Cycle

Many of this industry-shattering earthquakes can be traced back to user-experience improvements. Such as the one Google did when they improved search by using its PageRank algorithm, which greatly reduced the frustration users were experiencing with internet search at the time. The same goes to YouTube for finally getting video on the web right, and although interoperable video was already solved as a technical challenge, what YouTube did was to create the perfect social experience on top of video, comments, recommendations, channels, favorites, followers and vanity statistics were all put in the right place from the beginning. It’s not like there wasn’t room for improvement, YouTube design has changed radically since the early days, but some of the design decisions that helped rise the site to the top are still there: Video is still top-left aligned, there’s always a right bar with other videos and actions and comments are below the video.

Screenshot of the first video ever uploaded to YouTube (taken from here), circa 2005.

My first adventure in the user-generated content fad of the 2000s was much earlier (and much less successful) than YouTube’s. I grew up in the city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, home of some extreme landscapes that invite introspection. This city is filled with artists and writers, but there was no space in which to share our collective production. Back then I created, a website to share, rate and comment on short stories and poems by local writers. Bear in mind that I was a teenager working by myself without any actual design training.

CuentoXDí, social website for writers in a small town. Screen-shot circa 2002.

At it’s peak, the site had around 50 or 60 people went to the site every day to read the new story, and about 10% of them left comments and rated the story. More than 20 writers asked for their story to be published, which most of the time meant going personally to their house, grab a bunch of handwritten pages and type them. I know this does not sound impressive right know, but bear in mind that there were only a couple hundred people had internet access in the city.

The user, the consumer, the citizen.

In typical UX lingo, everyone is a user, because we define people by the way they relate to the products we design, which are seen like tools to accomplish a goal. So, if you want to put a nail on your wall to hang a painting, to make your living room nicer, you have to use a hammer. The goal of user-centered design is to inform the process of creating tools, by making the knowledge about the end-user needs and desires the prime matter for a product manager’s decisions.

But not all managers see their products as tools to be used, some see them as products to be bought, and thus they replace the word user with customer. This gave birth to what we know as Customer Experience, a branch of UX that focuses on generating happy customers, a goal often attained by cornering them into making irrational choices, like most good salesman do, but in the same way, is always well criticized for crossing some ethical barriers.

The ethical considerations on design practice and the usefulness of user research as a tool for decision-making lead me to a concept that had always been there: Politics. I started to see my products as tools for political action, so instead of the user, I think of the citizen. A citizen is a person that exercises their power to influence the collective course of their society.

Designing the citizen experience

When working on UX projects, I always consider Interaction Design as one of the biggest parts, and I’ve written two papers on the matter, this one and another that is not yet available in digital form. In this context interaction refers to the way a person would input commands and receive outputs from a computer. But when we stand back and consider whole user experience (not just the one with digital products), then the interaction is no longer only with computers, but with institutions and companies, and while some of those interactions might be mediated by computers, some of them are in person or through other media.

So the citizen experience design is trying to optimize the experience people have with and around public institutions, such as when they have to do paperwork, pay taxes or elect their representatives. This includes some of what is normally considered electronic government. But electronic government does not concern itself with politics, at most with policy, and most of the time it’s limited to on-line bureaucracy.

So citizen experience is mostly about the experience of playing politics: How do citizens know what’s going on? How do they organize and act? this part of the ICT industry is called civic technology, and it’s growing everywhere in the world as more and more people get on-line and want  the new communication technologies to fulfill their promise of improving their lives.

So as a civic experience designer I put user experience tools at the disposal of governments, non-profits, politicians and civic tech companies. To help them succeed in building tools for improving the collective life of societies, and in empowering large groups of people to identify and pursue their unique goals.

In 2009 I started working with a group of people and we had the crazy idea of redesigning the national congress. This gave birth to Congreso Interactivo, my first approach to using user-centered design and civic technology to solve a big problem: How do I know what my representatives are doing on my behalf? What can I do to change that?



By 2015 I had enough understanding of the citizen experience, so I gave  a talk at TICTeC, the first conference on Measuring the Impacts of Civic Technology. And at the same time I started my second big project: YoQuieroSaber, a voter information website. This one was a true hit, reaching hundreds of thousands citizens and being adopted by dozens of news organizations across Latin America.


Let’s work on the citizen experience for once

If you’re a designer or a product manager, you sell many products and ideas on behalf of your clients, so why not also help citizens be informed and organized?

This is a call for designers to join the ranks of civic tech developers everywhere. There’s people with noble goals who are struggling to get their message across, not because they are not right, but because they lack the skills our clients value: a sharp focus on people’s needs that creates the kind of experience that is needed for a product to make a lasting impact on people’s lives.

So find a problem, a cause that you know will benefit from a better mapping tool, a better information visualization or content strategy, or whatever you are good at, and please reach out and help, you will also be helping yourself.

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