How design is governance

Written by Amber Case

Art Direction by Manoel do Amaral

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I’m writing this post from a brand-new coffee shop in a busy area of Los Angeles. It seems like it is opening day, or soon after. From a distance, the seating and tables look charming, and the setting is well-lit by a large picture window at the entrance. It’s clearly designed with the intention of being an inviting place for people to meet up or hang out on their laptops doing work.

The problem is that the coffee shop looks great as long as you don’t try to actually use it.

Once I go in, the details started to really fall apart. The wifi password is printed in a tiny font at the front counter. It is clearly not designed for people working on their laptops, with most outlets located in places inaccessible from the cafe’s tables. The man across the room, also working on a laptop, has to make do with battery power. Luckily for me, after discussing the situation with two women at a nearby table, they laugh and help me plug in my power cord across the room. I have to drag my table closer to them to even make that possible.

After a while, all of the customers in the shop instigate a small mutiny, agreeing that the cafe furniture is totally in the wrong place. We end up moving the chairs and tables around to better positions to better suit our purposes, then sit down and resume our meetings.

Design is governance

At a fundamental level, all design is governance. We encounter inconveniences like this coffee shop every day, both offline and in the apps we use. But it’s not enough to say it’s the result of bad design. It’s also a result of governance decisions made on behalf of the customers during the design process.

Michel Foucault talked about governance as structuring the field of action for others. Governance is the processes, systems, and principles through which a group, organization, or society is managed and controlled.

Design not only shapes how a product or service will be used, but also restricts or frustrates people’s existing or emergent choices, even when they’re not a user themselves. My neighbor at the cafe, who now has a Mac power cord snaked under her feet, can attest to that.

In a coffee shop, we’re lucky that we can move chairs around or talk with other customers. But when it comes to apps, most people cannot move buttons on interfaces. We’re stuck.

When we create designs, we’re basically defining what is possible or at least highly encouraged within the context of our products. We’re also defining what is discouraged.

To illustrate, let’s revisit this same cafe from a governance perspective.

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Cafe design as case study in design as governance

A good cafe owner will understand the flow of customers, think it through themselves, demo it with friends, and figure out the furniture placement, either with this information in mind or with an experienced interior designer that has a deep understanding of flow. This particular cafe owner didn’t seem to totally understand their customer base at all. They made decisions on the customers’ behalf that didn’t match with their needs.

Design is not only what is fixed but also what is left free to be modified. A big part of governance involves distinguishing between the rules and the rules for modifying the rules. This cafe example provides a physicalized incarnation of that difference — the ability to rearrange the tables! Over the course of the afternoon, I watched the customers rearrange the tables in a way that suited their needs. Thankfully they were lightweight!

This “re-arrangability” is also related to governance — as long as there are norms about it being okay to rearrange the tables. From a cybernetics perspective, this actually increases the variety of the system and empowers people to participate in governance. The moveability of the tables introduces a governance surface for the cafe clients.

With requisite variety and re-arrangability, opening days or pre-openings can be soft and also learning experiences for the cafe owner. A soft launch with friends and family provides opportunities to fix obvious issues. When there’s an expectation that things won’t be perfect, customers can change things up a bit to suit their needs.

The problem is that the cafe owner has a brittle idea of what a cafe will look like and isn’t working from an idea of how the cafe might feel like, or how they can improve or disrupt actions over time. Without the requisite flexibility or understanding that they need to meet customers in the middle, a well-intended system can become stressful and annoying to the humans it serves, or unnecessarily uptight and restrictive.

A good cafe owner can quickly adjust to meet the needs of their customers in a kind of cybernetic dance that focuses on positive feedback, and spirals upward from there. (More on that dance from “Thinking in Systems” by Donella Meadows.)

Perhaps this particular cafe owner stubbornly pre-decided who their customers would be, assuming that they were mainly in the market for a pleasant place to chat or read, but not work on their laptop — thus making the cafe experience frustrating to the cafe’s true customers — the ones who did come there to work. Or, more likely, an analysis of cafe patron types didn’t cross their mind. They neglected to think through all of the scenarios. And therefore, their idea of a cafe governed everyone who came through it.

There exists a significant naivete and lack of experience with systems that are made up of both structural and behavioral elements. A coffee shop owner can control structure but they can only influence behavior. While structures can guide behavior — by defining what behaviors are possible (as well as some incentives around those behaviors) — the trust is that ultimately individuals always choose their own behaviors.

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Design choices impact operations after the design is implemented and deployed. In other words, this particular design choice turned the baristas into technical support. If the original goal was to nudge customers into ordering an item before getting free Wi-Fi, a better implementation might be posting log-in details and instructions on a large sign above a table carrying cream, sugar, and other items for customers.

The reason why I feel this was a lack of experience rather than intentional incompetence was that this cafe’s design discouraged customers from using it as a workspace while also providing free wireless — but with a WiFi password that was displayed in a tiny font on a small sign near the cashier. This made an added burden on their employees to give out the password, and I saw multiple customers interrupt drink-making tasks to ask the staff for WiFi instructions.

When customers have similar design problems with online/digital apps, we can’t simply move chairs and tables around, or give direct feedback to the owner.

The implicit feudalism of digital product design

In digital spaces, self-governance is enabled and circumscribed by the architecture of the platform on which people interact. This architecture determines the rules of engagement, and governs the interaction between separate user-generated institutions.

Design is governance, and in digital products, it’s often what media studies professor Nathan Schneider calls implicit feudalism.

Many digital products are actually platforms defining and enabling interactions between users. Even though designers are not making people do specific things, they’re deciding what kind of things can be done, and making many other actions impossible to perform.

Users might want (and sometimes need) to do things the platform doesn’t allow. In this way, the governance aspect is even more pronounced because the platform product determines what kinds of interactions its user can and cannot engage in and with each other. Little or no representation is allowed.

This implicit feudalism usually exists even when the designers themselves have the best intentions for their users in mind; often it’s simply not in their action space to do the consumer research they may want to do. There may have been some “public” input during early marketing and testing, but most everything else about the design is locked in by then. Conflicting timelines and a need from management to quickly release the product can create “solutions” that aren’t really thought through. That complexity of use then gets externalized to the end users (and likely the frontline staff as well (with our cafe barista providing wifi support as well as drinks).

Compare this to civil engineering, where the design must support all people and is very carefully considered. The processes for ongoing operations and maintenance of “the solution” is part of the solution.

Product requirements prioritize the needs of a subset of stakeholders, generally those associated with financial outcomes such as VC investors for a startup or executive management accountable to a board for a later-stage company.

In practice, this means that designers also tend to be subjects of this dictatorship. Many of them might want to make a useful app that does what it says it does, but their ability to act and design is in conflict with the incentive model and funding of the company they work for. In many cases, the design of online apps is scoped to maximize engagement; and thus aimed at fulfilling the needs of advertisers, not consumers.

All this culminates into a consumer experience where little about it can be fundamentally changed. And it’s nigh impossible to seek redress with the app developer. When angered by a poorly designed app, customers are trapped in a space that reminds me of the title of a classic Harlan Ellison short story: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”.

There are many obvious problems to designing for engagement, but a less appreciated challenge is that a user’s attention is a finite resource that fills up through the course of their day.

Attention is actually a rivalrous resource, giving us increasingly less time to budget it to focus on the things we actually want or need.

Despite all this, design frameworks can be scalable in ways that don’t necessitate dictatorship. If we really want to broadly change the field of action to fundamentally shift our experiences in the world, we need a design philosophy that can change what is optimized in the governance space.

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Better governance through calm design

When the architecture of a platform is designed with Calm Technology principles in mind, it enables users to self-govern in a way that is efficient and effective.


With Calm Tech, we optimize for a goal that isn’t just engagement. In the cafe example, we’re optimizing for the right information at the right time (Wifi password), a sense of flow in the cafe that allows people to order and then find a seat, and if they choose, settle in with a laptop and have a business meeting.


Calm Tech optimizes for a sense of pass-through, like a window designed to let you focus on the scene outside, not the window itself. Calm Tech tries to optimize in the same way the classic lightswitch is optimized. We don’t have to think about the switch until we need it, we don’t have to be a licensed electrician to use it, and we don’t have to understand the complexity behind the scenes that makes it work. And we certainly don’t need to install and set up a smartphone app to control it. Instead, we just switch it on/off. Calm technology requires the smallest possible amount of attention and doesn’t disrupt the user’s environment or current task.

In this way, users are able to organize their own social and political institutions without being overwhelmed by the technology that is supposed to enable them. The principles of Calm Technology can help create an environment that is conducive to self-governance.

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Creating calm technology together

Over the next few months, I’ll be announcing the launch of a Calm Technology standards body. The first of its kind — and a very frequently-requested resource — it will offer comprehensive information on how to build systems with Calm Tech principles in mind. My hope is that through design philosophy, we can fundamentally shift the way people and technology interrelate, and enhance humanity’s field of action in a pretty significant way.

But social good won’t be this body’s only goal; the business argument to Calm Tech is just as important. Instead of thinking about temporary value and short-term market share, we can start designing products and services that create value for their customers for a lifetime — who in turn reward them with word of mouth and a lifetime of loyalty.

People who take an enthusiastic interest in minor details of political policy assume everyone wants to talk about governance as much as they do, but in reality, people want organizations to care about them and effectively respond to their needs. And in reality, people just want things that work. And by work, they mean, don’t stop working unexpectedly, and more importantly, work in the way they expect, and what the product said it would do. Governance is important to have when it matters.

There also needs to be a way for customers to call for change — simply and seamlessly. My work with Superset supports the Calm Tech standards body’s higher goal.

This is why I’m working on expanding the role of Calm Technology in the world. I’m excited to work towards a culture that values pass-through over junk engagement, and a sense of human-centered time back to life, so people have a choice over what they want to engage with. With a few guidelines and case studies, I think we can make a huge difference in the world.

Much more soon. And if you’re interested in joining this standards body, please get in touch!

Thanks to the Metagovernance Project, Michael Zargham and James Au for discussions that led to the inspiration behind this article.

Works cited
  1. Governability by Michael Foucault on Wikipedia
  2. Variety (cybernetics) on Wikipedia
  3. Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows
  4. The Implicit Feudalism by Nathan Schneider

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