Governance and aesthetics

In the midst of the many great discussions about the technological shortcomings of Obamacare’s Healthcare.gov website, the frontend has largely escaped commentary–mostly because it has functioned. But the user interface is more than just functional; its aesthetics are also interesting enough to merit some discussion.

Screen Shot 2013-10-22 at 7.36.37 AM

It has a look that has been described as “lean,” “slick,” “ungovernmenty,” and “compared favorably with top commercial sites.” These are not exactly things we expect to see from our government websites.

We expect this:Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 12.26.38 PM

Despite the fact that cities’ (non-.gov) innovation offices’ pages are often easy on the eyes (see: Boston, San Francisco), the .gov ones are what we’ve come to know as a governmental aesthetic. And as far as aesthetics are rhetorical, they contribute to the claims these sites make about the goals, responsibilities, and interests of the government as they relate to the audience of citizen-users. They say “we can provide you alllll of the information and connect you to alllll of the appropriate services. And we don’t particularly care how enjoyable the process is, because success is predicated on delivering those services.” Service is about information here, not interaction. Moreover, by visually demonstrating a dedication to providing all of the information a citizen could possibly want, they  hedge their bets—it is, quite literally, all in front of your eyes (it’s just not the most legible in the form of giant lists). Great for citizen relations, right?

Ok ok, the cutting-edge sites look more like these on the municipal side, Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 12.55.56 PM

and this for federal services:Screen Shot 2013-10-23 at 12.58.20 PM

But those have their own issues. As cities are catching on that these may not be the best choices to make, the “slick” route makes sense—it’s professional and useful. A few months ago, when discussing the design of an upcoming project that’s a collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics—StreetCred—I kept seeing proposals with crisp versions of stock images and replying with “UGH THE DESIGN LOOKS TOO SLICK.” I was met with laughter, but the fact that this type of aesthetic is “corporate” emphasizes goals of efficiency and productivity—government run as a startup in visual form. In fact, The video explaining NYC.gov’s shift emphasizes efficiency and ease of use, rather than painting a picture of what services the new form makes clear. We’ve come to expect this visual style from political campaigns, we also understand that they are fundamentally selling us on a candidate. Corporate language and aesthetics have become part of campaigns in a way that government has not. Those goals of efficiency aren’t terrible either, but as I’ve explained before, inefficiencies can be very meaningful to civic life, and a government hellbent on efficiency will focus on practices that do not reflect the messy nature of contemporary democratic participation. So, even with a functional backend, a turn toward a corporate aesthetic poses raises questions about the normative values that come with design.

Rather than saying that this aesthetic is problematic, I’d argue that shifts in aesthetic choices call into relief what we ought to be thinking critically about in the first place: the arguments presented therein and the design choices that are foregone (and their arguments). The City of Boston’s “transition site” Next.CityofBoston.gov looks like a graphics-heavy blog, and it’s interesting for its embrace of the messy. Sure it serves a different purpose, but its design sets a low-key, perhaps less hierarchical view of how we interact with government. Sites for civic engagement that are fun—like CommunityPlanIt.org—make a very different argument about what it means to engage than MindMixer.com, and those design choices ought to be given more attention when we talk about engagement efforts. The question of what a more “engaging” site looks like still remains, but considering its aesthetics in addition to its affordances should certainly be part of the equation.

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