UX Design Principles and Voting: Part 1

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Design thinking and UX principles have gradually found their way into many aspects of people’s lives over the last few decades, streamlining processes and catering products and services to address their actual needs. Users have come to expect these improved experiences, which is a large part of why most organizations expect customer experience to be a key differentiator in competitive markets in the years to come.

But although good design is making people’s lives easier and more intuitive, there are still a few situations that provide a jarring reminder of what happens when no one puts much thought into basic design principles.

Unfortunately, one of those experiences happens to be the process of voting in US elections.

Quite frankly, the US voting experience is a mess, with enough things going wrong throughout the entire experience to make a UX designer want to cry. With the 2018 elections finally over, it’s worth taking a look at two major recurring problems in US voting practices to identify why they keep happening and consider how the process can be improved.

Problem #1: Confusing Ballot Design

Unlike most of the world’s democracies, the US organizes and administers elections at the local level rather than the national level. There is no federal central election authority that provides ballots to individual districts. While state governments establish some legal guidelines for ballot design, each district is responsible for designing and printing its own ballots, which means that voters in neighboring counties (or even voting precincts) could have ballots that look quite different from one another.

This complicated process is partly by necessity. The US is unique among many of the world’s democracies due to the sheer number of elected offices at the federal, state, and local level. A 2012 estimate by political scientist Jennifer Lawless put the number at well over 500,000. Neighboring districts may be voting for the same federal and state officials, but their local representative offices are different, necessitating the use of unique ballots.

Unfortunately, ballot design is usually less dictated by UX principles and more by expediency. Local election officials have limited resources to spend on designing and printing ballots. Since many of them are volunteers, they rarely have any experience in design thinking or usability testing. While organizations like the Center for Civic Design offer UX-driven expertise for designing better ballots, many districts are constrained by previous investments in voting equipment and the capabilities of local printers.

No discussion of poorly designed ballots would be complete without mentioning Florida’s infamous “butterfly ballots,” which may well have swung the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. The unusual layout was a well-intentioned effort to make the font easier to read, but, as is common with any design project, solving one problem created another. The confusing design likely caused more than 2000 voters who intended to vote for one candidate to vote for a different candidate. Of course, Florida has a history of ballot design controversy, with confusing ballots also potentially impacting results in 2006 (Sarasota) and again in 2018 (Broward County).

The “butterfly ballot,” however, is also a good example of why usability testing data is so crucial to the design process. Several rounds of user testing would very likely have revealed, either from actual results or user feedback, that people were confused by the layout. And this is the key issue: no matter how voting is handled in a district, people need to be confident that they’re voting for the candidates they want to vote for. Ballots that leave voters confused or cause them to overlook candidates undermine the basic principles of the democratic process.

What happens when no one puts much thought into basic design principles

Problem #2: Poorly Designed Polling Places

In a 2016 article, design reporter Anne Quito likened the typical polling precinct to a “disorderly bake sale,” which is a pretty accurate characterization (except you don’t get a cookie out of the ordeal). While experiences vary from precinct to precinct, turning up to vote in person on election day is usually a confusing mess. First, voters must wait in line to check in. Then they move on to a separate station to receive their ballot. And then they have to wait for a booth to open up. After they’ve finished marking their ballot, they go to a scanning machine so it can be tabulated.

Theoretically, there are trained volunteers manning each station to help expedite the process, answer questions, and keep things running smoothly. But confusion generally abounds. There are rarely clear signs telling people where to go or who they should speak to if they have a problem. Polling places are set up in buildings designed for another purpose, so the physical layout rarely gives any consideration to crowd management or traffic flow. While there’s a bit of an endearing quality to this in that it harkens back to the country’s long tradition of “ad hoc,” grassroots democracy, it’s a poor user experience that makes voting more difficult that it needs to be.

There’s also a lot of room for things to go wrong. Poor volunteer training, lack of communication, and general incompetence on the part of local officials can lead to disastrous results similar to what Indiana’s Porter County recently experienced. In the county’s 2018 election, widespread confusion turned people away from polls and may have resulted in many votes not even being tabulated.

Equipment malfunctions can create difficulties here as well. While there’s no firm data on the total number of voting machine problems in the 2018 midterms, Gizmondo kept a running tally of errors being reported throughout the day. Problems ranged from poll workers not knowing machine login passwords to hardware failures that left people unable to vote at all for several hours. In many instances, volunteers lack any expertise to fix problems that could arise with voting machines responsible for tabulating ballots. When these machines aren’t working properly, they disrupt the entire voting experience at the polling place, causing both delays and confusion.

A UX-oriented polling place would not only consider how to move people through the building efficiently but also take into account how seemingly unrelated issues like technical support for voting machines are an important component of that process. Much like the problems with ballot design, however, engaging in the sort of development and testing it would require to reorient voting as a customer experience design question is beyond the resources of many local election officials.

Confusing ballots and poorly designed polling places are the two most acute problems facing the voter experience in the US on election day, but there are plenty of additional long-term design problems that also have a major impact on voter turnout and engagement. Applying UX principles to these immediate issues, however, could go a long way towards ensuring that voters are confident that their voice is being heard

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