Blog Post

The Stakes of User Interface Design for Democracy

June 30, 2021


The January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol demonstrated that rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories pose an existential threat to American democracy. GMF Digital has documented why the social media platforms’ strategy of taking down content after it has gone viral is an ineffective response. This game of whack-a-mole fails to address the upstream platform design elements that enable disinformation campaigns to manipulate users, ampli­fying the salacious lie over the accurate report. Plat­forms themselves seem to be realizing the need for a new approach, implementing some new measures to slow virality and stop repeat offenders from spreading disinformation.

What remains, though, is a communications medium plagued by “deceptive design” of the user experience (UX)—one that makes it easy to manipu­late consumers. The authors propose to replace “decep­tive design” with empowering or “democratic design.” This paper and a companion paper by Caroline Sinders explain neutral design principles, how they are exploited to manipulate users, how they might instead be used to empower users, and how regulators can take account of design in their actions. These recommen­dations fit within a larger framework of revising and enforcing outmoded rules; encouraging the platforms to adopt a code of conduct to increase transparency and slow virality of disinformation; and empowering trustworthy civic information “infrastructure.”

It is well understood in the industry that design heavily influences how users interact with social media apps, websites, or search engines. Design choices such as color and font, the size and placement of action buttons, and the number of steps required to execute an action—what can be called design fric­tion—all shape the UX and what information people absorb and release. Digital platforms and service providers shape the UX in ways that can be respectful of user autonomy and advance accurate, high-quality information, or in ways that subvert user choice and promote deception.

Regulators have incorporated design best practices in a number of offline policies. This paper surveys key examples of such, ranging from emissions labels on cars to health warnings on cigarette packs. These offline regulations were guided by design principles; design best practices should inform online policy as well. The authors detail how labels, interstitials, and virality disrupters can serve as speedbumps for viral content—allowing platforms the time to moderate appropriately and users the opportunity to gain more context. This paper contextualizes the authors’ recom­mendation for a “circuit breaker”—a mechanism that would arrest the velocity of viral content to provide platforms with the opportunity for content modera­tion. If yoked to the public interest, UX design can be a powerful tool in promoting productive citizen engage­ment on digital platforms.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema /