Thursday, January 1, 2009

Design for Politics & Good Governance: Electoral process and Design for India

Use of Design for Good national and Regional Democracy

Prof M P Ranjan’s Papers

Image 1: website with an aim to register one billion new voters as part of the Indian democracy.

A new campaign has hit the regular TV programmes calling for an awakening of our youth towards the need to vote and be involved in the political process of the Local region, State and the Nation. The advertisment campaign is quite effective and I was curious to check what it held out as a promise for the youth to participate in individually and as a group. I have had my own problems with the electoral process since in the last General Elections I was unable to vote since my name was messed up in the electoral rolls and my ID card too had defects and worst of all my polling booth just could not be located all through the day in spite of trying several locations in our voting area.

Image 2: Jaago re TV Commercial from the YouTube offer.

I had tried to get my name corrected in a subsequent round of verification and I had visited a couple of schools to get my voter identity card reissued with a hope that the data would come out correctly but this too seems to have failed due to the clumsy manner in which the data collection was organized and I was on the lookout for another opportunity to correct this mistake.

Image 3: Map interface that is offered to locate ones house and from it ones constituency for the registration process.

This gave me the incentive to respond to the advertisment that appreaded on TV calling for new voter registrations which was launched in the public interest by Tata Tea Ltd and an NGO based in Bengaluru called Jaanagraha, and we were directed to a website called, where the word Jaago means to wake up, a wake up call for all voters. The website proclaims a lofty ambition of registering one billion voters across 35 cities in India and so far at last look they had succeeded in getting all of 220839 people registered when I last checked the site. What I saw was encouraging. Someone had taken the initiative to use the web to reach out and build a system that could be of public good. However as I went further into the site I realized that while it was a technical success at the design level much still needed to be done if they were to reach their stated objective.

Image 4: FAQ about the voting process at the Jaago Re website.

I had talked about Jaanagraha, the Bengaluru based NGO in my London debate about the next Design City and they were here involved in another venture for public good but I missed the use of design that I had advocated which could make this effort both effective as well as be a great experience for the user. What I miss the most is the language tools that could enable non English speaking citizens to participate in this initiative and the site itself could use many layers of design engagement which could make it an offering that could stand the test of variety and complexity which this current offering fails to provide. Not that this cannot be done. The web is very forgiving and flexible and at any stage the organizers can give their audience an improved interface and a much better feel and performance if they used design along the way. However I still give this a thumbs up for the initiative and wish it all the very best in the days ahead and hope that design finds a way into this initiative somewhere along the way of success.

Image 5: Electronic Voting Machine – story of its design in 1988 at NID for the Election Commission of India.

This reminded me of the Electronic Voting Machine that was designed by the National Institute of Design for the National Election Commission way back in 1988. It was the preliminary user testing that helped embed many intangible features into the interface at that time when perhaps for the first time cardboard models of the voting machine were taken into the field by the design team to conduct semiotic tests of issues of usability, particularly with illiterate users, and this is what I believe has made this particular design survive the test of time and it is still functional and effective It took ten long years to introduce it into 10 percent of the elections and another long period to reach the 100 percent mark and be used in all assembly and parliamentary elections across India. Design is a sensitive process and not just an object that emerges at the end of that process nor is it the effect of technology alone since there are so many human and other factors that need to be taken into consideration which makes it a truly wicked problem, but one that can be tamed with imagination and sustained design action.

I do wish that the Jaagore web effort would follow this process through a number of iterations and reach the success that it deserves through the use of sensitive design thought and action in India. The people of India deserve this kind of attention and care. Design is indeed politics. Unlike the politics of opposition and negotiation that is practiced through the party politics of our times it is the the politics of proposition, consensus and conviction building that can be adopted by the leadership of the community. This is the message that I had conveyed in my London presentation at the Design Cities debate where Bengaluru was voted as the most likely candidate for the future title, if we get it right in the days ahead.

Prof M P Ranjan’s Papers

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