Policymaking as UX Research

If We’re the Users, Citizenhood Is the Experience, and Laws Are the Service, Then Policymakers Are the UX Designers.

Policymaking as UX Research

While I'm not the most informed of political processes, it feels like policy-makers often make their decisions based on privileged counsellors, the media’s representation of the public opinion, and lobbyists.

When Bill Becomes Law

I did do a bit of research to understand the process better. Apparently, ideas for bills can come from a community, political parties, or from citizens directly. (First of all, how? Is there a form on the government website somewhere?) Ultimately, it is a member of parliament who must present the bill. (Here, I wonder how do ideas go from the people to the member of parliament? Yes, we're the ones who voted them in their seats, but how do we go beyond that? How close is this person to the voice of the people?) Then, bills are brought to the House of Commons. When passed there, they go on to the Senate to be approved by this second chamber. In both stages, bills may be sent to dedicated committees for detailed examination. (Who are these committees made of?) The committee examines it and gets to hear from experts (Who are they and how are they appointed?), private interests, and other affected parties (Can citizens opt in at this stage somehow?). This is when amendments can be made. All changes must be approved by both chambers. In Canada, that's when it is signed by the governor general.

What About Bills That Touch Citizen Lives?

So in this process we see there's a lot of people involved. Committees, experts, representatives, private interests; mainly politicians and not a lot of commonfolk.

While not all bills have the potential to affect our citizenhood directly, many do. Why don’t regulators look to their constituents to make and fix those laws that do touch us? I feel like this isn’t talked about enough; the how of political decision-making. This is a process that should be exposed, discussed, debated, and iterated on. Publicly.

Policymaking as UX Research

When I think about this, I wonder why policymaking, as a process, doesn’t look more like UX research.

For those of you who might be new to that term, UX stands for User Experience. It’s my profession, and as a whole, it is a speciality of design where you research the audience you’re building a product or service for. You interview them, brainstorm with them, listen to them, get them to test your ideas. After that inflow of new information, you process it and map out the context around your user. We even go as far as mapping their emotional journey, different facets of their personal lives, just so we know what they’re dealing with so we can better tailor our offering to them and ensure we provide value.

Having read this (very) short description of the UX research practice, doesn’t it seem obvious that the same activities should happen regularly in the political world? After all, as "users" of our cities and public services, it is part of our responsibilities to participate in public life. So it’s not like it would even be that hard for regulators to get a hold of us. They already have our contact information, they could even make contests out of it.

Citizens Are the End-Users

If we’re the users, policy-makers are the designers, the laws are the product, citizen life is the experience, taxes are the VC funding, the police is the QA team (fixing the bugs, ha!).

If policy-makers embraced more of a design lens to what they do, we could hold card-sorting sessions, do some affinity mapping, write up personas, map the experience journey of what a given bill proposes, etc.

If they’d care to meet even just 50 of us, randomly selected citizens, for a given bill, can you imagine the richness of the context map that would yield! We’d see details about all the factors surrounding these persons, we’d see which patterns they all share, we’d see where the biggest pain points are, we’d identify where public service fits into people’s lives and what they think could be done differently to make them better.

Think about it. UX research, but to write laws. I don’t know about you but to me, that sounds like the most sensical thing in the world.

Letting Voices Be Heard

By definition, a democracy gives power to the people. And in today’s "democracies", we have unfortunately distanced ourselves greatly from that original ethos. In the current system, our power resides a lot in our communal efforts; protest, walk-outs, sit-ins, Earth Day. Policy-makers seem to notice us only when there’s 200,000 of us blocking the streets of their precious financial district. What about the individuals in that crowd? Why is it so inconceivable to listen to them? To give value to their one single unique voice?

People Won’t Care

I can already hear some say: "But people don’t care, they won’t show up to those work sessions…" To that, I must agree only partly. Of course some people don’t care and never will and that’s a shame, but democracy doesn’t force you to participate. Democracy offers the power to the people and it’s up to you whether you embrace your citizen duties or not. But I do have to try and shift the focus of these naysayers to look to the ones who do care, who are informed, creative, have brilliant ideas, and who believe in the potential for a better future for their neighbourhood, their city, their province, their country, their generation and the climate.

In my current lens of the world, I see more people from that second bucket. A lot of them are from younger generations and that fills me with joy every time. Especially thanks to Tik Tok. I know what you might think! But Tik Tok has been a great addition to my digital information diet. Over the past two years, my algorithm has become this incredibly wholesome feed about accepting your body, thrifting, coming out, dealing with bad customers, condo floorplan critique, questioning societal norms, growing untraditional families, and the occasional cat loaf technique check.

But really, I’ve been exposed, within the past two years, to more inspiring young voices than I thought were out there. Especially in the US. I feel so much for my peers who live in red states and have to cope with retrograding laws, and who still get up and fight. Or for my peers struggling to pay rent in NYC, which is still this buzzing hub of activity where you meet so many people and are exposed to so many opportunities. Or for my peers in California who had to witness Mother Nature’s decay first hand without being able to help Her in the moment.

But What if They Do?

All this to say, citizens care. We can feel it in younger generations. They’re entering adulthood and seeing how broken the system is and they have all their life in front of them so they can’t do else but want to fight. Maybe the boomers around you and around me sound nihilist, and that’s probably fine. They’ve had great years, saw us grow up and now they don’t have enough time left to care, or they're just used to the way things have always been. Fine. That’s up to them. The system can still function if they don’t get involved.

But examining the processes of policy-making and encouraging that to become more like UX research seems like it could avoid us so much division, polarization, tension, anger and anxiety. If they’d just listen to us, and what we have to say, as actual humans who live in the cities, and pay the rents, and use the public transport, and visit the libraries, and are paid the minimum wages, and use the public parks, and wait months for doctor’s appointments, and slalom between the construction sites (shoutout MTL that’s me and my corrupt city ;). Us actual humans who live the direct experience of what gets decided in those echo chambers. Us actual humans who care about our role as citizens and who want to trust that the system will listen to our voices. Let’s make it become so.