New Research Paper Presents 30 General Design Considerations for Online Deliberation Systems

Thanks to a tweet by Evgeny Morozov I came across this new research paper by W. Ben Towne and James D. Herbsleb, published in the current edition of Journal of Information Technology & Politics (Volume 9, Issue 1, 2012, pages 97-115): Design Considerations for Online Deliberation Systems (subscription required)

ABSTRACT. Online deliberation enables structured, topical discussion about particular questions or concepts. A number of Web-based deliberation systems have been independently introduced in recent years, and reported on as single-point examples. This article reviews several of these systems, focusing on the design principles behind them and how they worked out. From this literature, we distill another iteration of design considerations that can be used to design online deliberation systems to “inform the debate.” These considerations focus on the mutually reinforcing goals of attracting contributions, navigating through content, improving usability, focusing on quality content, and promoting wide-scale tool adoption

On page 100, the authors explain that in selecting these guidelines, they sought ideas that are “understandable, robust, likely to remain stable, and consistent with one another” and that they are presented “at a reasonably high level”:

These are general guidelines that should apply to most online deliberation systems. As noted in Lindström’s (2006) description of general principles for IT systems, “The principles are not imperative; they are only supposed to provide operative directions and guidance” (p. 3). We recognize that not every item below will be appropriate in every context; […] We propose that each of these items should be considered during the development of an online deliberation system, hence the term “considerations.”
Table 1: Considerations for the Design of Online Deliberation Systems

Table 1: Considerations for the Design of Online Deliberation Systems

Below the list of considerations:

Design to Attract Contributions

  • Maintain low entry barriers for contributions of value
  • Make contributions immediately visible
  • Divide and conquer
  • Self-selection of roles
  • Well defined tasks and questions
  • Overcome or accept access bias
  • Accommodate but identify content bias
  • Link in outside resources
  • Loosen up on structure

Design for Navigability

  • Relate solutions to one another
  • Allow hyperlink exploration, but not as the only option
  • Organize content topically, rather than temporally
  • Minimize or eliminate duplication
  • Use visual aids to navigation
  • Include an effective search utility

Design for Usability

  • Build clear affordances
  • Stick with the principles of Robert’s Rules
  • Open windows to the content in many places
  • Interoperate with other systems, e.g. through APIs
  • Attach unchanging URLs to specific content
  • Automate nonsemantic operations
  • Use stable, functional, secure, responsive technology

Design for Quality Content

  • Identify contributors
  • Maintain accountability for decision-making outcomes
  • Institute an effective rating and reputation system
  • Allow iterative “horizontal” interactions between users

Design for Adoption

  • Improve the decision-making process; don’t overthrow it
  • Have a “plausible promise” and achieve it
  • Open opportunities for communities to form
  • Open up the design process

The authors conclude (page 112):

[…] We strive to take a step beyond case studies by surveying the literature and its many single-point evaluations, examining them for common themes, and deriving a set of design considerations that can be used for the next iteration of online deliberation tools. These considerations are derived from the online deliberation literature, and we have described the justifications offered for each of them.

An online deliberation system does not need to perfectly match all the guidelines presented here, but its designers should consider these points when making their design decisions, as a way of learning from the work that has already been done in this field. […]

We hope that this work will broaden the reach and improve the quality of future online deliberation systems by enhancing their usability, utility, and ability to attract and organize quality contributions. We also hope that through further experimentation and exchanges of experience, future work will systematically test each of these design considerations to produce a solid foundation of proven design principles leading to high quality online deliberation and further development of this field.

This article complements another design-oriented paper we covered recently (Five Design Categories for Online Deliberation), and the guidelines presented here should prove quite useful not only for tool builders but for anyone trying to make the best use of existing tools:

  • Some of the considerations are in fact process questions that don’t necessarily require any particular technical implementation.
  • With any tool, it’s important not to overlook the functionality and features that are already in place and which might help achieve the design goals.
  • There may be more than one way to achieve a certain outcome, and lists like the above can serve as a good starting point to discuss possible work-arounds should a necessary feature be missing.

The paper mentions several online deliberation tools, most of which are already being tracked on ParticipateDB. Accordingly, I’ve added this paper to the list of references.

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