Civic Design

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ballot Design Still Matters

We've devoted a number of blog posts to the effects of poor ballot design, whether on touch-screens or paper ballots. In fact, we've collected a fairly large amount of data to make the case that bad design may be the single biggest cause of lost votes in recent elections.

Last week's election presents more evidence, if any was needed, of the potentially disenfranchising effects of poor design. As a political blog in Seattle noted, a poorly-designed ballot probably caused as many as 40,000 King County voters to miss a property tax State Ballot Initiative.  As you can see from this picture of the ballot:

The contest was placed immediately below the instructions and to the left of all other contests -- very easy for voters to miss. What can election officials do to avoid these kinds of mistakes in the future? Well, one thing is to use design checklists, like those provided by the Design for Democracy and the Brennan Center. But I'm not sure that in this case, either of those checklists would have alerted officials in King County to the problem. (While both checklists emphasize the importance of consistency in presentation -- and having all contests except one to the right of the instructions is certainly inconsistent -- I'm afraid this direction would have been too general to provide sufficient warning for many officials).

And while it's easy, in retrospect, to say this problem should have been obvious, I don't think that's fair. Such problems are almost never obvious beforehand. Election officials and others working on forms are usually on tight deadlines, trying to get the ballots to fit into limited space and ensuring that everything and every name is correct. Even if they are only focused on how a design might confuse voters, they are often so familiar with the design that they're blind to problems; for the very same reason that it's often so difficult to spot one's own typos.

What probably would have alerted officials to this problem ahead of time, and at little or no cost, would have been a simple usability test: observing ten or fifteen King County citizens as they "voted" on the ballot before the design was finalized. This solution is simple, easy and cheap. The Usability Professionals Association has a great explanation of how it's done.

If county officials watched a dozen people fill out the ballot, at least a couple might have accidentally skipped the ballot initiative. And, with that, officials would have been alerted to the fact that their ballot contained a serious flaw.

The ballot eventually got it's usability test, of course...but on Election Day. And approximately 40,000 voters showed -- a little too late -- that this particular ballot design failed.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

London : 21 January 2010 : Election Ballot Usability with Clare Barnett and Caroline Jarrett

The UKUPA is proud to announce our first 2010 event with a very timely look at a usability study carried out on online voting for the UK Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission was concerned about whether the design of ballot papers was making it difficult for electors to vote accurately. Spurred by this, the Electoral Commission commissioned User Vision and Effortmark to conduct usability tests with a range of voters in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In their talk, Clare and Caroline will provide insight on how they approached the project and what they learned:

About ballots:

* What makes voting hard or easy
* How details of design affect the task success of voting

About running a paper testing project across four countries:

* Offline and online testing, differences and similarities
* How we analysed the results

About the speakers:

Clare Barnett of User Vision is a usability consultant who graduated with an MA in psychology and politics. She spent 10 years in financial services as a Web designer championing usability, then moved to do usability full time.

Caroline Jarrett of Effortmark is a usability consultant who specialises in forms, paper and web. She is co-author of "Forms that work: Designing web forms for usability" and "User Interface Design and Evaluation".

Date: Thursday 21st January 2010
Time: 6.30pm for 7pm start
Location: LBi, Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London, E1 6RU

Register via our Eventbrite

There is no charge for UPA members. For non-members the cost is £10, and for student non-members £5 - payable at the door.

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

AIGA launches online election design gallery

As AIGA's Design for Democracy turns into a volunteer-run project (as UPA's Usability in Civic Life is), Jessica Hewitt, who was the AIGA staff point person on the project for the last few years, has headed up a couple of important efforts that demonstrate recent progress in election design.

Design for Democracy's seminal project for the Election Assistance Commission completed in 2007 generated evidence-based and beautiful design specifications for effective layout and design of optical scan ballots, signs, and other election administration materials. Those have been posted on the AIGA web site for some time.  In addition to the report of best practices, anyone can download templates and graphics files.

Now that the design best practices have trickled down to the county level, the project has been collecting examples of how they've been implemented. Interestingly, though the design best practices were developed mainly for ballots and signage, local elections officials have successfully applied the salient parts (along with usability testing) in ingenious ways to voter registration forms, voter information pamphlets, ballot inserts, posters, and other print and online materials. Jessica Hewitt and Amy Vainieri present many of them on the AIGA web site in its Election Design Gallery, another great resource for local elections officials as well as professional designers working in elections.

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