Matthew Burton

Why designers are more important to government than coders, or: Democracy is a design problem*

I recently said** that designers were more important to successful government than coders are. This statement got a pretty vigorous response from coders:

‘Cause picking the right shade of #0000ff is much more important than an efficient backend.

Definitely. Who cares whether something works, so long as it’s painted a nice colour? ;-)

designers are not more or less important. that is silly. they’re equally important

Design is not the act of making web sites pretty.*** It is the craft of using various tools to encourage a certain outcome or behavior, and its work is driven by countless hours of research and testing in pursuit of the perfect design. This process plays a huge role in shaping the consumer’s world. The same should be true of the citizen’s world. After all, government is just a set of products designed to protect and improve our society. Instead of entertainment or home furnishings, government produces services, rules, and incentives. A speed limit is designed to encourage safe driving; its tools are visual (signs) and psychological (the threat of a speeding ticket). A law that ties school funding to standardized test scores is designed to motivate better school performance.

Most government designs are not as good as they could be. Public schools are filled with experiences that should be redesigned, from curricula to playgrounds to cafeterias. Some of those opportunities require technology that will call on software developers to work in tandem with designers. Other opportunities are stupefyingly low-tech (see previous link).

Other government activities are not designs, yet desperately need to be. These are the dreadful government interactions that we love to make fun of: The TSA line. Public transit. Filing taxes. The DMV. These experiences aren’t designed to make us crazy. Rather, it just doesn’t matter that they do. We have to subject ourselves to them, so there is little reason for the government to design these experiences to our satisfaction.

The effects of the first kind of poor government design–the law, product, or public service that fails to achieve its desired result–should be reason enough to instill more design thinking in government. But the second problem–the daily frustration that wells up in all of us when we have to solve seemingly small problems by navigating a maze of bureaucracy–has evolved into an active hatred of government among many Americans. These poorly designed interactions are destroying the government’s credibility, which in turn hurts its ability to implement policy solutions.

The impetus for the President’s rumored reforms is a failed software project, and the government’s software development capabilities need attention. But if these reforms take designers into account, their impact will go way beyond software. They will create a path toward giving design a greater voice in shaping policy–a voice that, by definition, represents the citizen.

I’ve noticed a surge of interest in public service among designers in the last year or so, similar to that of technologists around 2007-2010. There’s an amazing crop of design talent in this country that is yearning to make government more successful. I hope those who surround the President notice it as well, and that they see the full potential of design to reshape how the government does its work.

* I don’t know who came up with this phrase first, but I’ve seen it from both Gong Szeto and Dana Chisnell.
** Oddly, the original tweet seems to have vanished.
*** Though, if that’s all it is, I would still stand by my argument. The average government web site needs a design overhaul much more than a code refactor.

How one government agency makes great web products
A Peace Corps for Programmers

Categories: Ideas & Thoughts

Government service is a civic duty » « Five startup ideas you are free to use (but if you do, you should totally ask me to do it with you)


  1. I agree with the arc of what you are saying, but I feel like your argument has an implicit fallacy at its core. Are you saying that “coders” don’t design software?

    • I’ve heard this argument a lot from programmers. It’s fine to call software architecture a type of design, but I think you all see the difference between a design that citizen-users directly interact with and those that users never see. If you stretch the term enough, everyone could call themselves a designer: a physician designs treatments, a lawyer designs cases, a mover designs box configurations…but none of these uses of the term “design” are about encouraging a certain behavior or inspiring a certain reaction from the patient/client/customer.

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