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#6 The Iowa Caucus, bottles & politics
Welcome to the 6th edition of Design Lobster. This week we’re stepping ever so carefully into the world of politics. 👞
Question: Was bad design responsible for the Iowa Caucus fiasco?
The media storm that broke in Iowa last month has mostly moved on now to more infectious topics 😷. But in between applying hand sanitiser I’ve been spending some time reading about how much the design of the precinct reporting app Shadow was responsible for the Democrat vote-counting debacle we saw in February.
It seems that the short answer is not really. The most significant issues were technical, with many of the numbers only being reported partially by the app – necessitating endless recounts. But some of the design decisions that were made compounded these technical errors. In particular the process it asked users to go through to log in and send the numbers was badly suited to the high-stress, high stakes (and low connectivity) environment of a nationally significant poll. Dana Chisnell gets into the mindset of one of the precinct reporters:
It’s eight o’clock on caucus night, and you’re supposed to be reporting the numbers. For whatever reason, you haven’t had time to download the app and get started. But you’re out in some rural place where there’s not much in the way of cell signal. There might not be WiFi in the middle school gym for whatever reason. And if there was, if you probably need a password to get onto it as a student or as faculty, but you don’t have it because you’re neither of those things. Now, you are dealing with the cognitive load of all those stressors. I can only imagine that you’re just going to give up because the important thing is to capture the numbers from the caucus.
Dana Chisnell, election design expert - interview
And all that before you’ve even downloaded the app, let alone begun to use it.
The 2020 Iowa Caucus is a lesson in having enough time and space to research and thoroughly test a solution, but also to ask yourself if the solution is needed at all. Phone calls and texts have worked up to now at these polls, and I can’t help but wonder whether investigating the most efficient way of using these technologies might have been a better use of time and money. Deciding it should all be done through an app was a design decision too, and evidently not a good one.
Design takeaway: How are you taking into account the context of use in your design? How extreme will that context get?
More on the Shadow app.
This master thesis project by Jonna Breitenhuber from the University of the Arts Berlin is a shampoo bottle made of soap. The design eliminates plastic waste, only requiring the user to cut the corner of with a knife to begin releasing the shampoo. When the shampoo is finished, the user can keep using the bottle as soap until the entire product has disappeared.
There are a few drawbacks. The bottle requires users to hang it somewhere as there is a risk the bottle will dissolve if left on wet shower tiles. It also looks like the bottle uses quite a lot of soap to stay structurally sound, so I wonder whether over time users might end up with the right amount of shampoo but rather too much soap.
I really like the thinking behind it though. It pushes together categories and asks why the packaging can’t also be the product. Your use of the item and it’s decomposition become the same thing.
Design takeaway: Can you make elements of your design do more than one job at once?
Get soapy here.
Quote: “Design is the process by which the politics of one world become the constraints on another.”
– Fred Turner, academic & journalist
Fred Turner is interested in what he calls the politics of infrastructure – the way that political ideas are deployed and encountered in design artefacts. I like this quote because it captures the way the act of design makes intangible things like politics become actual physical parts of our lives. It’s literally how ideas happen.
There’s a great interview with him here.
Keep discovering. 🦞
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