Is a new people’s vote betraying democracy? My UX practitioner’s view.

I’m a user experience (UX) designer and there is one specific thing that has been bugging me in the current Brexit debate: people rejecting the idea of another people’s vote, reasoning that it’s not democratic and would be a “gross betrayal of our democracy”.

I don’t understand it.

I don’t write very often, but I thought I would on this occasion, in the hope that perhaps someone can explain.

The core of my job is finding ways to gather insights about what people think, need and want so that they can be better served by the services, software and tools we design for them. I can’t but wonder since when asking for people’s opinion more than once has become a problem and why should it be avoided?

If anything, our society is built on anything but:

  • My granny used to refuse twice if she wanted a little bit more of that delicious apple pie before she could accept it on the third time out of politeness.
  • I had to sign a disclaimer to confirm I understood the potential risk for my health as well as the expected benefits before undergoing some surgery, and confirm I was OK to carry on.
  • Everywhere a mistake can be made or an important decision is taken, we’re expected to confirm a choice before it’s legally binding. Even for small things. For instance, we need to tick a box stating we’ve “read and understood the terms and conditions” before we can purchase anything online.
  • My computer even asks me for confirmation when I’m about to delete the contents of my recycle bin!

And yet, when we’re about to reverse 40 years of work with multiple countries, impacting not only me, but the full not-so-United Kingdom, for multiple generations, I was asked only once. To make matters worse, it was asked in the vaguest possible way, meaning that any answer other than “remain” would be ambiguous.

As a result, the governing lot didn’t get it easy. The question was vague, so the answer wasn’t clear. They couldn’t understand what “the people” really meant, because multiple groups meant different things. But instead of asking for clarification, they pretended they understood. “Brexit meant Brexit” they said. The red, the white and the blue. Crystal clear, right?

In my profession, I mainly design software and services. I’ve been trained to design for five years, and I’ve been working in the field for about 20 years. The theory has changed a little bit in that time, but everyone agrees that there are a few key things to get right in order to design anything successful for people to use:

  1. Understand your target audience and see if you can identify “groups” based on what they need. 
    This is important, because sometimes, what they need is so different, you can’t find a single solution. This might result in creating two or more solutions because you uncovered different potential markets, or abandoning the project altogether because the problem isn’t important enough or the solution is too costly.
  2. Understand what the audience needs and why. In the jargon, we call it the “unmet need”
    The theory (and practice) says that you can’t simply ask people what they want. It’s a very difficult question to answer and their descriptions of what they want can be contradictory and ironically, something they wouldn’t use themselves. It’s much easier for them to express problems and why it’s a problem for them, than to give solutions.
     There are a few examples commonly used to express this. One of them is a quote attributed to Henry Ford saying that if he’d listened to what people said they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse. Only when you understand why you need faster and more resilient horses to go from A to B, possibly with the entire family, but in a private environment, perhaps the concept of an automobile becomes apparent.
  3. When the problem is understood, generate creative solutions to solve it.
    It’s recommended to create multiple ideas and challenge them as much as possible, up to the point where a couple of them can be prototyped. A prototype creates something tangible that can communicate the idea and provides an anchor for potential users to react to.
  4. Show your proposals (prototypes) to the target audience, ask them to use it, observe and question.
    This is incredibly insightful. Just asking people what they think of what you’ve done is not a good way to uncover their true opinion. Asking them to use what you’ve done is much more effective. Because you’ll see where something isn’t well explained, is helpful or redundant, or simply doesn’t achieve what they need.
    Here is an anecdote to illustrate the point: when I was a student, I took part in a lot of consumer research. It was great, because you’d get a lot of freebies, just by taking part in a survey. Incredibly, most of the value didn’t come from what people said, but from what people did. In a focus group, after an hour of talking about what would be the best colour for a new phone under development, arguing about the value of blues, pinks, creams and other pastel colours, the telecoms company gave everyone a phone to thank them for their time. They only had to pick the one they wanted on their way out. All of the colours discussed were there. 90 % of the focus group participants picked the grey one. Great insight.

So yes, there is an efficient, proven design process to understand what consumers or users of a service want. It has been used for years and years because it works, and prevents making costly mistakes.

It involves asking multiple times, in different ways and at different times in the development process, to make sure that it’s still worth investing in the thing that was thought to be a good idea at the beginning. It checks that what we thought was true a previously is still true now. That the conditions haven’t changed.

So, of course I’m baffled with the way our leaders are dealing with Brexit.

If I buy a house, I can pull out if the survey shows that the building isn’t safe. But equally, I could decide to proceed and renegotiate what I’d be willing to pay for it, given the new circumstances.

I can do what I think is right and acceptable, now I have all the information to decide what works for me.

So now we know a bit more what the Brexit deal would entail, why ignore what countless businesses already understand is a tried and tested way to de-risk decision making? Why can’t we ask people again, just to make sure they were understood in the first instance and nothing was lost in the translation? It’s not about undoing and ignoring what people said the first time. It’s about confirming that the solution matches what they said they wanted. If the deal is as good as what we’re told, surely there is no risk in asking for confirmation?

I hate referenda, but contrary to what some people say, I think it’s the only truly democratic solution at this stage.