The Experience Design of Protests

Photo Credit: Molly Adams

This year in the US has seen a bunch of large and small, well-planned and hastily put together protests. I’ve been to a few. From an experience design standpoint, some of them were better than others. The primary purpose of a protest is to draw attention to an issue by making a public spectacle, and to energize supporters of a given cause.

Today, I want to talk about the latter–the experience of being a protester, and what protest organizers can do to improve it.

I show up to protests when I’m upset about something happening in my culture. This is what I want out of a protest: to feel the community of those around me; to feel like I’m doing something; to connect with groups and leadership within the movement; and to figure out what I could do next to best support the cause. Few protests have been able to meet all these needs.

In addition to the more spiritual needs protesters have, at core, we’re all human and have human needs–to go to the bathroom, drink water, sit down for a hot minute, and hear what’s being said.

Before I begin, I want to point out that organizing a protest is probably hard–like really really hard–and I want to salute the work of the groups who organized the events I’m about to review. You did incredible things! You got us all there! I’m so happy someone organized these events I was able to attend! I offer the following reviews out of love, and in hopes of making future protests even better.

The Women’s March in Boston

Practicals:

  • We could hear most of the speakers, no small feat given the size of the crowds. I did notice that the career politicians–Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey–were the easiest to hear due to their rising and falling inflections.
  • While we were waiting a very long time to march, the speakers played popular dance music, making things feel fun and participatory.
  • There were toilets, though the size of the crowds, and the way organizers were therefore controlling the flow of people meant that for several hours, it was difficult to get to the latrines. We left the march because I had to pee really badly, and ended up sneaking into a nearby UU church.
  • We brought our own water.
  • Here, as in other protests, I’m not aware of what access for people with disabilities was like, but that is always an important practical concern.

Intangibles:

  • The pink pussy hats and coordinated image campaign led a nice unity to the crowd, both as we traveled to the march, and afterward.
  • The chants were pretty lame, standard fare. The crowd seemed faintly embarrassed to be chanting and unsure of how it was supposed to go, maybe because it was the first protest of the season. The most successful places in the protest existed around those who had brought drums or other musical instruments, which added a nice partying vibe to those locations.
  • When I left the protest, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next.

Immigration Rally in Boston

Put together hastily over a day or two in the wake of the Muslim ban, this protest took place in Copely square.

Practicals:

  • No real sound system, so it was very hard to hear any speakers unless you were very close to the front. I was not close to the front. Consistent with other rallies, Elizabeth Warren was the most audible because she knows how to moderate her cadence to be heard.
  • No organized toilets, but lots of local eateries where you could go if you bought a bottle of water.

Intangibles:

  • Good crowd camaraderie
  • Same lame chants.
  • As at the Women’s March, there were a couple zones of people playing drums and bells; those areas had the most participatory atmosphere
  • When I left the protest, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do next.

The March For Science–Boston Common

Practical:

  • Ample, easily accessible toilets, ideal if you were demonstrating with pregnant people
  • Sound system was OK–you had to be standing within a certain distance of the stage, but since the crowd wasn’t too packed, this wasn’t a problem.
  • Ample snack and water vendors

Intangible:

  • Nice set of activities for children
  • I liked seeing the signs and costumes and knowing that so many other people also care about science.
  • The experience design of the main speeches could have used some improvement:
    • Yes, there were superstar scientists who spoke, which was delightful and appropriate…but many of them spoke in monotones that did not fire up the crowd and were hard to hear over the sound system.
    • Five-plus speeches from school children reading their winning science essays was too many to be cute. I support including kids at an event like this, but why not move most of these speeches to a smaller kids track with a friendlier and more kid-focused audience? I felt like I’d unwittingly showed up to a recital for someone else’s children.
  • The only music played was local musical groups. This was charming. Unfortunately, the local groups had been asked to re-record familiar tunes, but with brand-new science lyrics. While thematically appropriate, this also robbed the audience of perhaps our only opportunity to actively participate in the stage show–we couldn’t sing along.
  • I left the rally feeling like I wasn’t a participant, but an audience member. I also didn’t know what steps I should take next to support the role of science in public discourse.

 

Take Aways for Future Organizers

  • A good sound system is king. I have no idea how hard one is to procure, or whether it requires additional permits or what, but from a participant-perspective, it makes a huge difference in how involved the audience feels.
  • Get speakers with public speaking experience if at all possible. Or give your speakers some coaching on how to be heard and how to add lines that involve the audience and turn them into active listeners. Professional public speakers were more audible on subpar sound equipment, and they were also better at getting the audience involved with chant-lines, which increase active listening.
  • Design for participation. Protesting can be boring. But you have the power to make us feel involved in the movment. Think about what you want us to do at the rally–cheer? Sing? March? Designing for participation could be as simple as circulating some new cheers or putting ringers in the crowd to start them, asking a couple music groups to create some zones for dance, introducing a bespoke hand signal or two that makes us feel unified, or organizing a sing-along.
  • Speaking of sing-alongs…where have all the protest songs gone? These jams notwithstanding, it feels like new protest hymns haven’t really come around since the 1960s folk movement. Here’s what the anthems of the 1960s had in common: they were easy to sing acapella and followed musical structures and/or melodies that many people (churchgoers) absorbed as kids. Get busy, singer-songwriters!
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY: Design what happens when people leave the protest and design for future action. What happens at the end of an experience is what people are most likely to take away. For organizers, this is a magic moment to inspire participants to take action. This could mean people handing out flyers at the local subway stops, or simply a clear message during the speeches of the three to five most important actions to take on this issue. I left nearly all of the above protests not knowing what else to do other than call my elected representatives.

Bonus tips for Protesters

A couple ideas culled from some of my failures.

  • Use foam posterboard for signs. It’s rigid, which makes it easier to hold up. You can also use a matte knife to cut three narrow strips off the long side of the posterboard, and tape them together in a sturdy rectangular prism that serves as a handle. It’s a particularly good handle, because in addition to being structurally stable and saving your tired arms, it’s also soft enough that no one would mistake it for a weapon, and it can be snapped off or detached from the sign if need be.
  • Write on the back of your posterboard. Most of the people looking at your sign will be behind you at any given march. Having two sides to your sign more than doubles your impact.
  • Come up with your own cheers. This works great in a bigger group, and since protests are inherently participatory, there’s no reason to leave this work to the main organizers.
  • Musical instruments can make you popular. But only if you know how to play them.
  • Protesting is kind of boring. Boring, but necessary. Prepare yourself for this emotionally, and go with people you can make small talk with.

For more on designing transformative experiences, check out Johanna Koljonen’s amazing diagram over at ParticipationSafety. Yes, it’s written for larp, but you could really replace the word “larp” with “protest,” “theatrical play,” “museum exhibit,” or any other type of defined experience.

And if you’re looking for a participation design consultant for your next big event, drop me an email. I know people.

Do you want different things out of a protest? Have different ideas about what makes a protest participatory and effective? Concerns I left out? Let me know in the comments. 

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