Progressive Sloganeering: A UX Perspective

Matthew Johnson
Jul 23, 2020 · 12 min read
Photo of a Black Lives Matter banner on a building

Whenever a new movement or popular campaign arises, I wonder how it got its name and/or slogan. Was it a democratic decision, where all early members were surveyed? Did the founders land on it after an all-night debate? Did it come to one of them in a dream? Or was it something that came up randomly and stuck — like a childhood nickname?

I would like to think it came as the result of a careful, systematic process. Research and data analysis may not sound sexy or revolutionary, but they should be a major part of any social movement. After all, a movement that is truly “social” or popular — defined by the root of the word — should be directed by the people. While it would be cumbersome and inefficient for the masses to weigh in on every decision to protest, disperse, change tactics, etc., it would hardly be inefficient, given our current technology, for masses to decide the public rallying cry.

The goal of this essay is to advocate for a new approach to political sloganeering that is rooted in UX principles and practices. While I hope that progressive movements and campaigns adopt this approach, it should go without saying that even regressive or reactionary movements can make good use of design thinking for unfortunate ends. For all our sake, I hope they do not. Let’s at least beat them to it if they do.

You might be thinking: What makes you the authority? Answer: I am not the authority. I am proposing that this new way of thinking about political sloganeering is the authority. It has nothing to do with one individual or a privileged group of any kind. I have far more faith in processes than in people. The best ideas should be in charge, and those ideas should come from the people whom those ideas are intended to serve.

I will readily admit that I am an armchair revolutionary. There was once a time (in college) when there was not a single progressive cause I did not champion with every fiber of my being. Feminism. Anti-racism. Environmentalism. Peace. Anti-poverty. You name it. I was the kind of person who talked about revolution late on Friday nights when everyone else was trying to get drunk. When people stopped listening, I went home and read revolutionary texts until 3 a.m. That was during the Bush II era.

So far in 2020 I have gone to one of the major Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and donated a little to the Bernie Sanders campaign before it tragically came to a halt. That is about as far as my activism goes these days. Mostly I just talk a good talk.

Beyond that, I am a member of the Peace and Justice Studies Association and hold a master’s degree in that field. In 2018, I published a book about how much of a malignant sexist Trump is and how concerned anyone who cares about women’s rights and dignity should be by his rise to power. The book did not change the world; in fact, it hardly got into anyone’s hands at all.

I do not claim to be a leader of the earlier anti-Trump resistance or any of its present-day manifestations. I also do not claim to be a leader in UX writing or research. While I have been writing since I was a child, I didn’t know what “UX” stood for until about a year ago. I thought people who worked in tech sat in front of a computer all day coding or resizing text boxes. Nonetheless, I learned what I needed to know quickly (with the help of my girlfriend, mentors, and a bootcamp program) and now work full time as a UX researcher — doing far more than resizing text boxes. I was determined from day one of my journey into UX to apply design thinking and practices to causes I cared about. Here is one attempt at that.

Please remember, as I critique your beloved slogans and boldly suggest new approaches to creating them, that — again — I do not claim to be an expert. I am merely a messenger.

Black Lives Matter

I recently ordered two “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) t-shirts because I feel comfortable walking around with those words on my chest just about anywhere in the world. (In the past I’ve mistakenly bought political t-shirts where this was not the case.) I am confident that no stranger will read my shirt and come to a mistaken conclusion about my values or beliefs. I don’t like the BLM slogan because it’s trendy or because it would be politically incorrect for me not to like it. I like it for three reasons that make for good UX writing and good writing in general:

1. It’s specific

A lot of protest movements try to do too much. They, like poorly designed products, suffer from featuritis — loading up on features and accessories at the expense of doing one or two things especially well. It is possible to do both at the same time. Google, for example, does a lot more than search, but “googling” is synonymous with searching (with the assumption that those searching will find what they are looking for) because Google’s search function is the best.

BLM is specific. It’s clear where a person stands if they recite or flaunt the slogan. A bystander will have at least a basic idea of BLM activists’ agenda without doing any further research. Enough said.

2. It’s inclusive

Very few people would take the position that Black lives don’t matter, and those who would take such a position are likely unreachable. This makes it a very inclusive slogan. The idea that “All Lives Matter” Is more inclusive misses the point: “All Lives Matter” does not represent a movement or agenda in and of itself. It’s often employed as either an ignorant reaction to the BLM slogan or a shameless attempt to obfuscate the issue. All lives do matter to someone (even the unborn to some conservatives), but they don’t matter equally. When I hear “Black Lives Matter,” it resonates as an attempt to remind everyone that there are Black people in the U.S. (and beyond) who have names and stories worth remembering. To feel threatened by this is to feel threatened by inclusion itself.

3. It’s relevant

For people to pay attention to something in particular, given everything else they could be paying attention to, that something must be relevant to their lives in some way. BLM is not only relevant to Black people, it’s also relevant to anyone who cares about Black people. I strongly believe that the latter applies to most (non-Black) people in the United States and beyond — and will one-day apply to all except the most sociopathic of citizens.

I was initially attempted to discuss the context in which the slogan was created to justify its relevance — to talk about Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and the countless other names associated with BLM. If I did this, however, I’d have to go back to the days of chattel slavery and trace the history of policing from slave catching to the militaristic way Black people are policed in modern-day segregated communities. But I couldn’t stop there.

I would also have to discuss racial disparities in education, health care, income, housing, and a slew of other essential areas. The research is already there. The facts and trends are clear. Racism on an institutional, cultural, and individual level are alive and well. BLM needs no further justification. Just scanning the headlines these days can be enough to convince you that BLM is as relevant as any cause.

Other Strong Slogans

At the risk of scope creep, I want to praise other major political slogans for meeting my three criteria: “Me Too,” “We Are The 99%,” and “Yes We Can.”

Me Too may not seem specific at first, but the viral, celebrity-driven nature of it made sexual violence a sticky topic for the first time in recent memory. On it’s face it is universally accessible, which, paradoxically created divisions within the movement when men, specifically, tried to participate by using the popular Twitter hashtag (#MeToo) and sharing their own stories of victimization.

I recognize that “We Are The 99%” is not inclusive to those in the top one percent of income earners. But that’s not a lot of people. Moreover, it’s fair to assume that next to no one in the top one percent is a strong believer in the redistribution of wealth, which was the primary goal of the Occupy movement (although precisely how to achieve it was a major source of internal tension). Those at the top would have the most to lose if the pyramid collapsed.

“Yes We Can,” while incredibly relevant and inclusive, is the least specific of the slogans I’ve mentioned, but it worked very well for someone named Barack Obama. It’s also a popular rallying cry among the grassroots left. On the streets in the U.S. and many countries abroad, “Yes We Can” or the Spanish equivalent, “Si Se Puede,” can be heard. I consider it to be universally relevant because it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to foment any sort of change with a cynical mindset.

A Slogan I’d Like to Workshop Further

I have no idea how the slogan “Defund the Police” came about, but I wish it could be workshopped. It might not even be accurate to call it a slogan — it reads as more of a demand. The problem is it’s not a specific-enough demand either.

I have already read or listened to countless caveats to “Defund the Police,” almost all of which serve to downplay it: “Defund doesn’t mean abolish.Some police departments should be entirely defunded while others should receive more modest cuts or additional oversight,” and so on. I would actually prefer “Abolish the Police” because at least abolish is a strong verb that I can associate with the heroic Abolitionists of the pre-Civil War area or the modern prison abolitionists, who have made incredible strides in the last few years.

All that comes to mind when I think of “defund” is a boring Excel spreadsheet or an idle threat from a white-collar father who does not approve of his prodigal son’s lavish or reckless lifestyle. It almost feels like a made-up word. If you have to add “de” to a word commonly used as a noun in order to create a verb, you’re probably overlooking a stronger verb. Orwell would not approve.

A Suggested Process for Future Sloganeering

Here’s how I would go about producing a strong slogan if I had unlimited time, resources, and didn’t have to worry about losing the moment.

First, I would identify a major societal problem. My central research question: What do a large number of people in my wider community care about? It might be tempting to focus on a fringe issue or on your own pet issue that you’ve been devoted to since childhood. The problem is that this would betray the foundation of UX. Both the problem and the solution must come from the user, and the user in this case is anyone who puts your slogan on signs, t-shirts, their skin (in the form of a tattoo), their social media profiles, etc., and then fights for the cause in the streets, in the household, in corporate board rooms, in schools, in legislative chambers, and/or wherever else is relevant.

Ethnographic research is essential to pick a sticky issue. This can be done by simply observing what people are saying and posting (or liking) on social media. No rocket science here. You might not easily get a sense of how many people care about a particular issue if your social networks are small, but a quick look at statistical data can help. For example, if you were an anti-racist from outer space and crash-landed in the U.S. circa summer 2020 and wanted to find out how many people might be affected by racism, it would be a simple matter of looking at Census data to determine how many people are non-White. Or, better yet, find out how many people are White and target them with your anti-racist campaign instead.

Second, I would look at every popular slogan related to the issue I’ve identified. I did this in order to write this essay, in fact. It’s called secondary research. Bottom line: Don’t steal other people’s ideas and pass them off as your own — even accidentally. It’s obvious to me that Trump campaign staff either neglected to conduct secondary research when choosing “Make America Great Again,” or, just as likely, they didn’t care. I won’t even talk about Obama in this regard. Please do secondary research. Just do it.

Third, I would invite a diverse group of people passionate about the issue to a design studio. There are many ways to structure a design studio, but the basic idea is to do multiple rounds of sketching — or drafting potential slogans in this case — and feedback. After every round, drafts should be revised. Once every participant ends up with a satisfactory slogan, an election should take place to determine the top two. It might seem like two is an arbitrary number, but I’ll explain in the next step.

(Note: Feel free to give design studio participants my three criteria above when generating slogans if it makes the process easier.)

Fourth, conduct an A/B test with as many people as possible. Two choices make an A/B test a lot easier. A/B/C test just doesn’t have the same ring. Once you have your two top slogans, create a simple survey and send it to as many people as possible — asking which slogan they prefer. Also, be sure to collect demographic information from those who are willing to provide it. Make sure your participants are diverse in age, gender, race, religion, class, occupation, etc. Depending on the cause you have chosen, it may be necessary to favor particular demographics. For example, if your slogan is about addressing rural poverty, it would make sense if the vast majority of your survey participants lived in rural areas. This does not mean that the opinions of urbanites are irrelevant, however, just that they are not the primary users because they would not be the people most affected by a campaign against rural poverty. I will explain using a slogan I really like: “Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us.”

Keep surveying until the trend is clear in one direction. If this proves difficult, it may be necessary to combine the slogans or hold a second design studio. There should be a strong community consensus before moving forward.

Fifth, test the winning slogan. Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to one, user testing is the logical next step. Every good user test should be conducted in an appropriate context, so you will have your work cut out for you at this stage. You’ll have to organize a rally and create signs and printed materials with this slogan. You should also promote the rally virtually using it. Text it to all your friends. If you’re old-school, leave voice messages too. Hold off on t-shirts until you’re sure it’s a winner, though. T-shirts can get expensive.

Important note: Even though I’m referring to this as a “test,” you should not call it that publicly or promote it as such. As far as anyone external to the research is concerned, this is your inaugural event. This is your campaign kick-off, and that’s the extent of it. Of course, you will collect feedback from participants, but this can be done unobtrusively through a survey sent to every attendee. (Be sure to collect email addresses and demographic information.) You may not even need to ask about the slogan specifically in the survey; you’ve already done that. The point here is to gauge whether they understood the cause — or goal of the campaign — and were energized by it. Just because a slogan looks good on paper (or a screen) doesn’t mean it will energize and inspire people to make change in their communities. You want to ensure that the slogan is not only aesthetically pleasing but also effective.

Conclusion

The process I have outlined above is by no means comprehensive — nor is it the only way to bring the principles of UX writing or UX more broadly into the realm of political sloganeering. I will admit that, although I have used every research method I have mentioned, I have not yet used them in the context of political campaigns or anything close to it. This was a theoretical exercise. I task you, now, with proving that it works and/or finding a better way.

If you choose to take up the task, though, I hope you operate under the principle that the best political slogans are the ones not only for the people but by the people at large. The best product or service is the one the user wants, and politics is no different.

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Matthew Johnson

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I’m a meticulous scholar, creative problem-solver, and passionate advocate whose bottom line is unlocking human potential through research, writing, and design.

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