Digital Organizing as if Volunteers Really Mattered

A guest post from Libby Falck on "Building a Case for Human-Centered Design in Organizing."

Today’s edition of The Connector is a guest post by Libby Falck, the founder of Forward Labs, a civic games and technology company that emerged from her graduate research at MIT on game-based learning and digital organizing strategy. I first met Libby in 2019, when she got in touch after moving back to her home state of Wisconsin and started doing really interesting work in rural and suburban areas around youth voter engagement and grassroots organizing. The following essay is born from her experience there in 2020 working on electoral organizing. It contains both a warning and a vision; a warning that digital organizing today is too closed off to human participation and a vision of a more inclusive way of bringing people into campaigns and movements for change.

Libby Falck

When the designers at today’s leading startups, tech companies, and industry giants sit down to solve a problem, they don’t start with solutions, they start with questions. 

Those questions are centered on one thing: their users. Who are the people we want to serve? What are their needs, values and priorities? What potential barriers will they face in accessing our offering? These questions are standard in the field of human-centered design (HCD) and no product would be developed in the private sector without deeply understanding their answers.

This is not the case for political campaigns or the technologies that support them. 

We just made it through the "most important election of our lives" by the narrowest of margins. While the metrics of participation went through the roof--more people voting than ever, more volunteers signing up to canvass, phone-bank or text, more donors to campaigns than ever--there's a worrisome little secret haunting the progressive electoral landscape. 

Biden won the presidency, but volunteering with progressive campaigns was a losing battle for many would-be supporters who fell through the cracks of poorly-designed volunteer infrastructure. Emails and DMs went unanswered. Signup forms led nowhere. Facebook pages were launched and then abandoned. These failures turned campaigns into walled gardens that were difficult for newcomers to discover and navigate.

The majority of movement organizations today are failing to translate their social media followings and email lists - no matter how large - into the thing they need the most: action. If the goal is to mobilize more followers, we need to be diligent about designing systems that deliver volunteer experiences those followers find valuable. Pointing to 15-20% open rates on emails as if that’s a positive accomplishment and bragging about event sign-ups without talking about the 50%-plus who never show up, are ways of continuing to skate past this reality: our systems are poorly designed and leave most people out. Even in my home state of Wisconsin, where the state Democratic party has earned a reputation for innovative organizing, this is true.

[Screenshots above: Example of a poorly designed action sequence. In this case, a “take action” button was included in the body of an email about the Infrastructure Bill with no context about what the “action” is. Clicking it led to a “thank you” screen and email that also had no information. At no point was the user told what they signed up to do.]

What are the needs, values, and priorities of our users?

The Stanford (design school) defines human-centered design as “a philosophy that empowers an individual or team to design products, services, systems, and experiences that address the core needs of those who experience a problem.” In the world of professional organizing, very few people think about their users - the volunteers they are hoping to mobilize -  as “people experiencing a problem,” but they should. Because they are. 

In the wake of President Trump’s 2016 election I returned from San Francisco to my hometown in central Wisconsin to interview friends, family and strangers about the increasing polarization and political avoidance occurring in our community. By this point in my career I had spent a decade doing human-centered design for social impact companies, schools, and educational tools and games. As I learned more about the nation’s civic decline, I began to look for ways to make a difference. In 2017 I started a Master’s program at MIT to study the barriers that prevent “disengaged progressives” in rural and suburban Wisconsin from taking action. Here’s what I learned people are looking for:

  1. Personalization: Volunteers are more likely to engage with personalized calls to action that leverage their unique interests and skills and align with their top-priority causes. Phone-banking and door-knocking are critical activities, but they are often not the best first ask for new volunteers. Campaigns can create a wider set of calls to action that invite artists, writers, techies and others to contribute their skills. Offering diverse ways to plug in constructs a compelling ladder of engagement for new volunteers.

  2. Community: Volunteers stick around when they feel like they’re part of a community (in person or virtual). This means going beyond facilitating relationships between organizers and volunteers to create spaces where volunteers can build peer relationships with each other. Great communities also empower volunteers to develop and lead their own creative grassroots projects.

  3. Learning: Volunteers are more likely to engage when they understand how an action will make a difference (this is called “action logic”). For many people, this needs to begin with a refresher on how democracy works. Unfortunately, campaign spaces tend to be dominated by political wonks; they can be intimidating and present a difficult learning curve for newcomers.

What are the barriers our users face?

Each of the above items translates to a barrier faced by potential volunteers. Addressing these barriers requires campaigns to work in unfamiliar territory in times when staff are often already struggling to meet unrealistic goals with limited resources. I’ve spent many years working with nonprofits ranging from the American Cancer Society to tiny disability rights groups and my own small nonprofit IDEAco; I understand this challenge. Unfortunately, the target audiences we hope to mobilize don’t know this (or it is at least not top of mind). 

As we consider the barriers users face, we also have to think about their expectations. Many people - particularly young people - have developed an expectation for polish, interactivity, and personalization in their digital experiences. This is not being delivered by the digital organizing industry. For example, consider the differences between these two apps an iPhone user might see in the context of a single phone session:

Experience of popular mobile games and apps:

  • Well supported and beautifully designed with end-user in mind

  • Personalizable with leveled tutorials

  • Continuously improved over time with frequent updates

  • Extractive privacy and data practices and limited oversight

Experience of civic engagement and organizing apps:

  • Poorly supported and not aesthetically pleasing

  • Lack of understanding of end-user needs and minimal instruction

  • Infrequently updated with gaps in data

  • Lax privacy and data safety standards and limited oversight

Comparing Pokemon Go to the Indivisible app may seem ridiculous. One of these developers clearly has more resources than the other and organizing citizen action has nothing to do with checking in at a PokeStop. Right? The unfair reality is that users will compare apps in this way, at least subconsciously. That’s why digital experiences built for volunteers must meet basic expectations when it comes to user experience and accessibility, particularly if they wish to engage younger populations. 

That said, the necessity to serve volunteers goes far beyond the technical design of apps, websites and tools; all decisions related to volunteer engagement and mobilization should be informed by the needs of the target audience. Human-centered design is an approach that can help campaigns accomplish this goal. So why is it so rare in the organizing industry?


A challenge for the field

When I was offered my first official campaign job at Organizing Together 2020, I was eager to leverage my research and skills in human-centered design to build a large grassroots community of volunteers in my home state of Wisconsin. The pitch to organize in a way that had never been tried before prompted me to walk away from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity at a big Silicon Valley tech company. Nothing mattered more to me than winning in Wisconsin, and the pandemic presented unprecedented needs that digital organizing was uniquely positioned to answer.

Unfortunately, I quickly learned that our leadership team’s top priority was not to support volunteers, but to deliver big, flashy numbers that impress funders. Claims that “we crushed those dials” (regardless of the connection rate or impact of the calls being made) were valued far more than building pathways to help new volunteers discover and engage with our work. As one field organizer put it, “You make dials to recruit shifts. You recruit shifts to make dials. The snake eats its own tail and no one wins.” Building a robust and inclusive volunteer experience was simply not a priority. 

Nor was research on community engagement, media ecosystems, or youth activism. In fact, references to this research were frequently received as “academic mumbo jumbo.” Even at the outset of a global pandemic, some of my colleagues at Organizing Together struggled to understand why volunteers would want to engage with an “online community.” Concepts like user experience design (UX), user journey mapping, and user feedback (all critical for product design in the private sector), were absent from their vocabularies. 

Looking around the room (or, more precisely, scanning the faces of the Zoom grid), it was clear why: our team was almost entirely composed of lifelong organizers with little experience in other industries. Most people had been organizing since college, and the methods and frameworks they were using had changed little since that time. Not surprisingly, many of the technologies designed to serve campaigns reflect this bias. Because they are built by former campaign staff, voter mobilization tools like VAN and do a better job replicating the logic of traditional campaigns than overcoming barriers to participation. 

This lack of diversity perpetuates a system that prioritizes the needs of older, educated, white, and more privileged volunteers. One retirement-aged volunteer posted in the Biden for Wisconsin Facebook group, “There’s no excuse not to volunteer. Anyone can pick up a phone.” Of course, that’s simply not true. This sentiment ignores scheduling challenges, connectivity limitations, language barriers, and the ability to speak and hear (to name just a few). Unfortunately, like most progressive campaigns, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin didn’t offer many ways for supporters to participate other than phone-banking, watching Zoom events and donating.

When campaigns emphasize top-down strategy and data collection over inclusivity and community building, there is an additional side effect: organizers in the field (physically and virtually) are denied the agency to address the barriers that limit participation for their volunteers. Field organizers often told me they spent so much time trying to meet call goals that didn’t have time to engage with their existing volunteers. As NYU Professor Stephen Duncombe claimed back in 2006, “Perhaps the problem is not that people don't want to get involved in politics, but rather that they don't want to take part in a professionalized politics so interested in efficiency that there is no space for them.” Clearly, things haven’t changed much.

Let me be clear: the lack of inclusivity in campaigns is a design choice. It may not be conscious but it reflects the values, assumptions, and biases of decision makers. We could significantly increase who is able to participate in political campaigns by centering the unmet needs of underrepresented populations in volunteer engagement strategy and technology decisions. Campaigns are choosing not to do that. This must change. Investing in team members with expertise in human centered design will be a critical step toward building an organizing ecosystem that promotes greater participation in democracy. 

Here are few other suggestions:

1. Redefine digital organizing

Today many people think digital organizing refers to activities like building email lists and using Facebook to get more people to attend a virtual event. For example, the Biden campaign’s digital training program defined the goal of digital organizing as “using online tools, platforms and communications to register, persuade and mobilize voters and volunteers.” Although necessary to overall campaign strategy, these approaches fail to promote activities that build social capital such as community discourse, developing trust through reciprocity, and creating shared identities. They make up only a part of the larger picture. It’s time to reframe the idea of digital organizing with an expanded definition. Here’s mine:

Digital organizing is the use of digital tools to facilitate contribution, learning, and connectedness in a movement community. It is an ongoing, human-centered process that focuses on crafting pathways to civic participation in an ever-changing media landscape. 

2. Diversify your team and decision makers

With this new definition in hand, you’ll need human-centered designers on your campaign team, but there should also be an increased emphasis on hiring staff with more diverse professional backgrounds and skills in general. Diversity of experience fuels innovation and creative problem solving. This diversity must also include hiring more people of color and women, particularly in leadership positions.

3. Make it personal

Research on “participatory politics” shows that giving potential volunteers the ability to choose how they will take part based on their personal interests, skills and resources increases participation. This “personalization of action” is particularly important for engaging young people. Although buying a t-shirt to support a cause may be less efficacious than calling a senator, it can be the first step up a ladder of engagement for that individual. Campaigns need to create a diverse and inclusive variety of these “first steps” to get more volunteers started.

4. Make it understandable

It is equally important that these early steps for new volunteers also offer civic learning. It can be difficult for people who work in politics to remember that new volunteers often don’t know how political systems work at any level of government. Introducing bite-sized opportunities to learn the politics of your campaign should be a core component of your communications strategy. For example, most people don’t know where the boundaries lie for local districts, so I encouraged candidates running for State Assembly and county board seats this year to include a map of their district on their website and as part of their content strategy.

5. Build real community, over time

Many campaign volunteers will tell you that the friendships they build with other volunteers are a major driver for completing shifts and returning to campaigns year after year. We know community drives volunteer engagement, but we rarely invest adequate time in building the supports necessary to do this work well, particularly online.

Volunteers need spaces where they can connect with their friends and peers and self-organize. In 2020, with most field offices closed, platforms like Slack, Discord and (note: this is a different tool than played an important role in helping volunteer communities grow online, but they were ignored by many state and local campaigns. The work of structuring and moderating online communities requires both expertise and labor. Unfortunately, this is often poorly understood by campaign leadership who assign this work to interns and volunteers with minimal experience. Even after field offices open again, campaigns must do a better job resourcing and moderating their online communities. For many volunteers, this may be the only way they can engage.

Concluding Thoughts

Many of the challenges in this field are systemic and will require an openness to change from the decision makers at the top. For example, one of the most impactful improvements we could make is simply shifting investment toward ongoing, local community organizing. I haven’t met a single organizer who thinks dropping college kids into unfamiliar communities for a few months at a time is a great idea, yet it happens cycle after cycle. This is the antithesis to best practices in community building. What if we instead invested some of our dollars in robust digital infrastructure - intentionally designed around the needs of volunteers - to consistently engage, educate and mobilize followers?

Organizers and campaign staffers are deeply passionate people who put in grueling hours for minimal pay. I do not fault their authenticity, passion or drive. It is the insular nature of the campaign industry that is hamstringing its potential. In the name of efficiency and data collection, we’re at risk of losing our humanity. Learning, community, agency, connection, and beautiful, easy to use experiences are critical factors in driving long-term engagement.

Human-centered design (and the related fields of user research and user experience design) offer methodologies that have been used by designers for decades to address these problems in other industries. Only some people can donate, but anyone can contribute… if they’re given opportunity and structure to find their place in your movement. It’s time for organizing to embrace the full capacity of the internet as a driver of personalized, adaptive, broad-based participation that meets the needs of diverse volunteers. 

Need help figuring out how to do this? Talk to a human-centered designer.

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