Brains, Gore, and User-Centric Design: What We Learned About Zombie Tech Projects

Nathaniel Heller

Yesterday the OpenGov Hub hosted a brutally honest and refreshing discussion around our collective propensity to invest in “zombie” technology projects — projects, tools, and apps that either rebuild the proverbial wheel or fail to solve an actual problem. But plenty of peole want to fund them, NGO and technology firms choose to build them, and these questionable choices spawn zombie portals, knowledge repositories, and app stores that no one actually uses.

Our presenters included digital strategist Jed Miller; Sunlight Labs ninja Jeremy Carbaugh; Blue State Digital’s Kody Starr; and Taoti Creative’s Sam Harper. I helped to moderate the discussion and kicked off with this slide deck; Jed’s is here as well for those interested (his is far superior).

There was no shortage of stories from the speakers or the attendees about sites that probably shouldn't have been built and the overall challenge of matching what creators think is needed with what communities could actually use. 

Drawing on lessons from Blue State and his time on the White House petitions team, Kody said that no matter what your tech can do, you'll need to budget extra hours, great design and serious content planning to get beyond your launch day successfully. Jeremy described the evolution of the OpenCongress platform, its successes, its slowdowns, and the constant need for evolution to be useful and relevant. 

Sam stressed the need to keep the big picture in mind in tool design—sometimes it takes a smart consultant to see how a dozen good decisions have combined to point an NGO in the wrong direction. Jed also noted that everyone needs to check their "incentives" before they make something new—donors, NGO boards, executives, managers and techies all have their versions of "autopilot" and unquestioned assumptions that deserve the "cleansing fire" of tough questions.

Talking with the great mix of technologists and policy wonks in attendance, we reinforced some common sense ways of avoiding zombies:

  • Do serious user research. Stop assuming you know what people need and actually talk to them. A lot. And well before you build anything or write an RFP for technology help.
  • Stop assuming that “the public” or “citizens” or “researchers” are a target audience. They are not. Take the time to break down from the general and learn about actual audiences and users. Then feed what you heard into your design process and your expectations of actual uptake and usage.
  • Don’t diminish the importance of intermediaries and infomediaries. We can’t ask my mother to do everything — be an educated voter, mobilize a constituency, read government budgets, call her representative, and advocate on behalf of “the public interest.” We have journalists, NGOs, and others who serve key roles in that chain. Remember that you may really be reaching out to that smaller, more critical group, and that sometimes makes sense and takes the burden off of non-specialists.

We very much appreciate the time that both the audience and the panelists took to have such an honest and genuine conversation about the mistakes that many of us (this author included!) have made in the past. If we’re lucky, we’ll see fewer zombies in the future. And we'll be ready.

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