UX/UI DESIGN


The Politics of Design

Putting a design choice in its political context

Steven Ward

As the progression of the field of design embraces analytics it is morphing, branching, and congealing into something new called user experience (UX). The concept of the One Metric That Matters (OMTM) has been embraced by UX/UI designers, sometimes seemingly at the expense of all other considerations.

Your OMTM at any given time might be something like the number of clicks on an ad, visitors to your website, newsletter signups, app downloads, or in-app purchases. Whatever it is, when the testing starts, all focus is on how any tweaks you make ultimately affect your OMTM of the moment (OMTMOTM?).

I will argue in this article that your OMTM may very well have a blind spot, and that's when you have unknowingly included an element that looks great to you and the audiences you test it with, but carries deep cultural significance with potential future audiences that you may not be aware of.

The Risk of Being Ignorant to Politics in Your Designs

I've been a fan of AppSumo since July of 2011, when I jumped on a free series of educational videos they were offering about Google docs. It was not long after, in August, when I would purchase Box Shot King, a service that simplifies the creation of images for ebooks and other digital products. At the time, I had the vague notion to someday dip my toe in the waters of self-publishing a book someday (and I, eventually, did although I forgot all about my Box Shot King subscription).

Since then, I've signed up for 79 of the products offered by the service, most of them freebies I've picked up over the years. In that time, I've seen it evolve from being mostly a way to get a free or cheap preview of various startup services to what it is now; a method for new startups to get swift injection of capital to help them grow, in exchange for bargain-priced lifetime deals on incredibly useful technologies for the user base.

Along the way, AppSumo has collected a user base of rabid fans, affectionately called "Sumolings." Recently a variety of Facebook fan groups have sprung up dedicated to getting the most out of the tools AppSumo offers. The groups grew so fast and furious that the ravenous enthusiasm the members had for every new deal started going a bit too far. A market for buying/selling/trading unused lifetime deals sprung up and quickly spun out of control, as it had the developers of long-past deals reeling from the sudden flood of extra work managing changing over user records. In just a few weeks, AppSumo came out and reversed it's policy to explicitly ban the trading of deals.

Similarly, developers offering deals that are not generous enough for the Sumolings, quickly face their wrath in the online comments.

Suffice it to say, "Sumolings" are enthusiastic and loyal. Heck, I consider myself one of them.

Now, you might have taken note of the name 'Sumo.' The founder, Noah Kagan himself, has said that not much thought was put into the name at all. It sounded good, and he's managed to build quite a brand around it; a brand that manages to be both cute and cool, while borrowing useful elements from Japanese culture in a way that no one really takes too seriously.

And that is where we get to something that has always unsettled me about AppSumo:

Notice something similar between Kagan's pic here and my title image of this article? That's because it comes from the 'Rising Sun' flag representing the Japanese military (and WWII empire).

So what's the problem?

From the American perspective, Japan's involvement in WWII is much less well known than the German, but Germany did not hold a monopoly on evil during the time period.

A brief catalogue of Japanese atrocities in the Pacific:

And that's not even counting the attempted cultural genocide of the Korean peninsula that took place over the decades leading up to the war. Japan needed Korea's resources to supply its overextended military empire extending throughout southeast Asia. They were extracting food and minerals at the point of a gun, they were also kidnapping young women and girls wholesale and sending them to remote territories as "comfort women" for their troops stationed there. While all of this was going on, they were destroying Korean cultural artifacts, outlawing the Korean language, and generally trying to wipe out Korean history.

In every corner of this empire, the rising sun flag flapped in the wind while unspeakable horrors were committed on the ground below.

The end result of all of this is that a sizable and populous chunk of the world views the rising sun in much the same light as the swastika is viewed in North America and Europe.

Funnily enough, an emblem similar to the swastika is widespread in Asia and nobody bats an eye.

Don't get me wrong. I don't for a second believe that AppSumo supports Japanese atrocities. Neither do I think MMA fighter Georges Saint Pierre did when he proudly wore a rising sun patch on his gi as he entered the stadium for his fights. This led to an open letter from fellow fighter Chan Sung Jung

 I feel like I should tell you that many Korean fans, including myself, were shocked to see you in your gi designed after the Japanese 'Rising Sun Flag'. For Asians, this flag is a symbol of war crimes, much like the German Hakenkreuzflagge. Did you know that? I hope not.

The Japanese government has made pro forma apologies and reparations over the years, but the era is glossed-over in its own history textbooks, not to mention film. This certainly gives one the feeling that, despite official apologies, there is no heart in it.

So why should AppSumo and Georges Saint Pierre give a damn?

Well, if the moral case against the symbol isn't reason enough, then consider this:

Millions of potential future AppSumo customers have a moral revulsion to the imagery they are choosing to associate their brand with.

Conclusion: Can AppSumo Dodge Bullets?

It's not about being politically correct.

It's not about avoiding offending people.

It's about winning fans and conversions.

On the one hand, it could be argued that, by tracking your OMTM, cases like this would, eventually, be discovered and work themselves out when they need to be worked out.

Georges Saint Pierre is by all accounts a very kind, intelligent, and humble person. He graciously accepted Chan's letter and apologized immediately, as did Hayabusa, the company that produced the gi bearing the rising sun. He sustained very little reputational damage from the incident. Personally, my respect for him even increased a bit.

He reacted perfectly. Things went exactly his way. The timing was juuuust right for him.

He dodged a bullet.

But a little bit of understanding of politics and history of this region of the world whose symbols he was coopting would have meant he wouldn't have had to.

P.S. Did I accidentally prove the value of a liberal arts education in the coming tech revolution? Cuz I think I totally just did.