City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

The website that I visit more than any other is that of the football team I support, Liverpool FC. At least daily, reading 2 or 3 stories each time. Apparently it’s the most successful football club website, and a key ‘weapon’ in the club’s marketing armoury, particularly given the importance of marketing English football clubs in the Far East market (Liverpool even have a bespoke version of the site for Hong Kong!)

Anyway, the site’s just redesigned, after a couple of years in the previous incarnation, and the team just posted this story about the redesign:

"Picking the team at Liverpool might be Gerard Houllier’s job but thanks to a groundbreaking initiative – a first in the Premiership – thousands of supporters have played a major role in the creation of the new website. Anfield played host to weeks of interactive workshops, giving hundreds of fans from all over the country the opportunity to input into the design and content of the new-site. Short-listed designs were presented to fans online and, after an unprecedented worldwide voting response from over 20,000 supporters; the new look was born."

Sounds an interesting approach to getting the opinions and feedback of users – I’d be keen to find out more about how the workshops were run, as I’m assuming it was the usual UCD round of voice mapping, card sorting, paper prototyping, wireframing etc., but they may have tried other techniques. I’m never sure about snap votes on designs however (unless they were fully clickable versions, which might begin to reveal some potential well-worn paths and dead ends) as this would tend to emphasise the visual layer of the design, and I’m not sure designing that aspect by accumulated user response is necessarily a good idea.

Thing is, I had no idea this was going on! Despite me visiting the site every day – and being a Web professional – I never saw any of these opportunities to join in the design process. Not that I would necessarily have added any more insight to the process – and if they had 20000 involved, that’s probably enough! But I would’ve liked to have contributed. I may well have missed it (or perhaps it was a random sample) but I can only think they put the ‘invite’ into the design process on the front page, which I never visit (my daily visit is to the bookmarked /news page.) Note to potential developers – put the promos and entry points on those well-worn paths.

I guess this is akin to the <geek signifier>plans for the destruction of the universe being posted for public consultation in a town council’s toilets in Hitchhiker’s</geek signifier> – or the rather tiny, randomly placed signs badly tacked to railings indicating potential planning developments in UK towns and cities (probably Adams’ inspiration). This as opposed to the level of organised public consultation on all developments that goes on in countries with a culture of empowered local decision-making, such as Switzerland.

I was born in Zürich and my parents still rattle on about the level of involvement the average citizen has in local decision making – essentially in localised design processes. This fascinating PDF outlines the structure of the spatial planning in Switzerland – Spatial planning in Switzerland : a short introduction [PDF] – look at the level of process and thought to enable engagement with local interests, determine all relevant ‘stakeholders’, enable potential for consultation etc. Part of the rationale for this (other than a particular cultural history) is that physical space for development is as tight in Switzerland as it is, say, in the Netherlands or Manhattan.

People often think that – in comparison to these city plans – websites are somewhat limitless in space (due to the virtual nature of the thing), but that just isn’t true in any useful sense. Websites are finite (as defined by the user’s experience of them); screen ‘real estate’ feels as precious as a plot for an apartment block in Zürich; and sites themselves should probably be focusing in, getting smaller, tighter.

All is not necessarily well in Switzerland’s development laws however, but the point I’m making here isn’t one of decentralised decision-making being necessarily better (because sometime it is and sometimes it isn’t) but that localised consultation and deliberation is vitally important, and that those looking to build in large, well-populated, heavily-trafficked online spaces could perhaps learn more from how some planning cultures have managed to repeatedly and successfully engage citizens in localised design processes.

If you have any stories or examples of cities engaging citizens in consultation and decision making processes – successfully or unsuccessfully; either simple changes at street level, or large scale like the WTC Memorial(s) – please add comments below …


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