Civic Design

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

This blog has moved to

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kavanaugh bill in NY state assembly would make ballots easier to read and use

Add your comments to a posting on the web site for WNYC's radio show, "It's a Free Country," that presents a proposed redesign for the New York ballot.

The Brennan Center for Justice worked with Design for Democracy and the Usability in Civic Life project to develop an updated best practice ballot design that takes into account the particularities of voting in New York state.

On the show, which aired on June 9, 2011, New York state assemblyman Brian Kavanaugh and Larry Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice discuss how important design is to successful voting and elections. On the show, Larry runs through the proposed design improvements and why they'll make a difference. There are images of a redesigned ballot on the site, as well, and the show invites your comments.

New York voters have had a rough time transitioning from the mechanical lever machines they used to vote for 50 years to a new, paper-based optical scan voting system in the fall of 2010. Ballot design issues have a ripple effect. They frustrate voters, confuse election workers, and can make recounts complicated. All voters are affected by poor ballot design. We urge New York to pass the Kavanaugh bill. 

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Plain language is indispensable

On October 13, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. This is no small thing. Have you seen legislation and government documents, lately? The Act calls for writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and consistent with best practices for the subject or field and the intended audience. 

Seems simple enough. To ensure that everyone is clear about plain language, the President issued a memorandum that provides guidance to heads of executive departments and agencies on implementing the Plain Writing Act. The six-page memo walks the talk -- that is, it lays out a phased approach for ensuring that Federal communications are clear and plain.

I think we can all agree that getting straightforward information from the government is desirable. But plain language is fundamental to the success of civic design. When communications are simple and plain, it is much more likely that citizens will know about the benefits they're entitled to -- and that they will be able to enjoy those benefits. Imagine what it would be like if everything from Social Security reports and letters from the Veterans Administration (both of which have been doing a beautiful job with plain language for years), to trademark applications, to government contracts, to instructions on ballots -- were clear and simple. 

What a world this would be. 

One of my favorite parts of the memorandum explains that each agency must have a page on their website explaining how they are meeting the requirements of the Act. 

Download the entire memorandum PDF here.

Labels: ,

Monday, March 28, 2011

The slides are up! SxSW and EVN feature sessions on ballot design

There’s been a lot of talk about ballot design and usability testing in places you might not otherwise expect to see it. It’s been exciting to see a growing interest in civic design from everyone from geeks to advocacy groups.

I organized a panel at South by Southwest Interactive with Ric Grefe (AIGA), Larry Norden (Brennan Center) and a Dana Debeauvoir (Travis County Clerk) that not only had a great audience, but made the local papers.

At a conference called EVN in Chicago where election advocacy groups, local elections officials, and others have met for the last seven years, I was delighted to be on a panel that Whitney Quesenbery put together about working with local elections officials. Our star panelist, Jenny Greeve, was AIGA fellow in Washington State for 2 years. We emphasized that design and testing matters in elections, and the audience seemed to see the appeal. The presentation slides are available here: Dana’s ~ Whitney’s ~ Jenny’s.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Top 10 Ballot Design Principles

Design for Democracy, a project of AIGA, observed hundreds of voters using dozens of variations of designs for ballots over two years of research for the Election Assistance Commission. The results formed the basis of a beautiful design specification for ballots and other election materials that the EAC published in 2006. Below are the top 10 guidelines that came out of that report.
  • Use lowercase letters. It’s easier to read mixed case and sentence case text than it is to read all uppercase text. 
  • Avoid centered text. Centered text is for wedding invitations and wine labels. Left justified text makes it easier to identify the beginnings of new sentences, assisting skimming.
  • Pick one sans-serif font. Serif type faces feature tiny strokes at the ends of characters that may make text more difficult to read. The font used in this blog is Helvetica, which has no serifs – and is thus a sans serif font – and is similar to the recommended typeface for ballots and forms. 
  • Use big enough type. Research shows that 12-point type for print is highly readable by most people. On a computer screen, type should be at least 3 mm high. It is possible to use type that is too large for the purpose. Using 16-point or larger type for printed ballots may be too large. 
  • Support process and navigation. Voters make their way through a ballot in a particular way, whether it is a print ballot or an electronic one. The design of the ballot needs to reflect how voters expect to use it. It also needs to prompt behavior in the right places. For example, instructions for turning over a printed ballot to vote both sides should be at the bottom of the right hand column.  
  • Use clear, simple language. Avoid election jargon such as “partisan.” Use active voice, and cast instructions positively rather than negatively. 
  • Use accurate instructional illustrations. Using simple, clear illustrations that show clearly how to mark a ballot assists all voters, but especially helps low literacy voters. 
  • Use informational icons (only). Some US jurisdictions include icons or symbols on the ballot for each party. However, such icons have been found to be distracting and confusing on ballots. Voters are more likely to make mistakes on ballots that include party icons. Icons should only be used to signal something the voter should pay specific attention to, such as special instructions or system warnings. 
  • Use contrast and color functionally. Using color judiciously, consistently, and for specific conventions can help voters find their way through the ballot. For example, shading and contrast can be used effectively on print ballots to set one contest off from the next. In electronic voting systems, color can call out voters’ selections; designate forward or backward progress through a ballot; or under- or overvotes
  • Decide what’s most important. When all of the text on a ballot looks the same, it can be difficult for the voter to identify what she should do and how to do it. Create a visual hierarchy that clearly sets out the different elements of the ballot design and supports voters’ voting activities.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, March 07, 2011

Why is it so hard to produce a usable, well-designed ballot?

This form changed the world.
Miami-Dade presidential ballot from 2000, the "butterfly ballot"

The picture is of the so-called "butterfly ballot" from Miami-Dade County from the presidential election in 2000. It is called a "butterfly ballot" because of how the candidates for this office flow over onto the second page of a two-page spread. The designer of this  punch card ballot wanted to make the type large enough for her overwhelmingly older voting constituency. This caused the contest to flow to two pages. That caused the candidates to interlace across the two-page spread. The holes are meant for every other one to the left or every other one to the right. There are horizontal rules to call out the candidate pairs and arrows to point to the holes. If you use trifocals, and you're in a garage with bad lighting, or a high school gym where there's a lot of glare on the page, how might the alignment go for you? Also, it isn't hard to imagine a voter poking the first hole for the first candidate on the left. Then you must poke the second hole for the second candidate - right?

This intentional-but-ill-informed design caused people to vote in ways they had not intended. It caused enough voters to make mistakes that it changed the outcome of a federal election. Which, because this election happened in the US and it was to elect the president, changed the world. This is not unlike the butterfly of the Chaos Theory.

Democracy is a design problem

Whenever I tell people that I work in voting and election design, I get two questions. The first is, So, is there money to be made there? (No.) The second question is, Why is this so complicated?

The people who ask the second question usually have an answer to offer me, already. The solution, they say, is that there should be one voting system for the whole country. This would impose consistency that could be supported with standards, testing, and enforcement. But it isn't that simple.

By tradition, running elections falls to the states and counties by virtue of the 10th amendment to the US Constituion, which says that anything that isn't covered in the Constitution falls to the people. It is considered a "states' rights" issue. All the Constitution says about elections is that there will be such to elect people to offices. Later amendments say who can vote (15th - barring discrimination based on race or color; 19th - womens' suffrage; 24th - eliminating the requirement to have paid income taxes; 26th - establishing 18 years as the legal voting age). Nothing says anything about who determines what system to use. It falls to the states.

The multiplicity of voting systems is just one tiny slice of this wicked problem. As with other design problems, there are constraints. In the case of ballot design, there are several that interact: 
  • Voting technology is a moving target, so standards and best practices always lag. 

  • Election management systems are reprehensibly difficult to use. EMSs, into which databases of candidate filings and questions or measures must be poured to make ballots are so difficult that many county election officials just send their databases in to their voting system vendors to do the ballot layouts for them. 

  • Design specifications and language for instructions are embedded in county and state election legislation. Type font, weight, and size, grid, and position of instructions are often specified in state election code. Election regulations also often include the exact wording of instructions. It's not uncommon for the instructions to have been written generations ago, in negative, threatening, passive voice. 

  • Election directors are excellent public administrators but they're not trained designers. In most of the 3,000 or so counties in the US, the people who run elections are county clerks or registrars who handle vital records such as birth certificates. Most are women, who, on average have held that job for 20 years. They usually are not tech savants, but they don't fear tech, either. They are busy, burdened, and budgetless. Elections have become more and more complicated to administer. Even if they could use InDesign to lay out their ballots, they're not trained designers. For many, a "usable" ballot is one that can be counted accurately by the voting system. And they want to keep costs as low as possible. Printing, mailing, upgrades, bug fixing, translations, storage -- all this costs money. 

  • Ballot templates are issued at the state level. It is typical for the secretary of state, as the head of elections, to issue what's called a "ballot template" for state and federal elections. These also come from people who aren't trained designers and don't take into account the things that can happen when county and municipal contests are added to the ballot. They might not make room for multiple languages. They rarely put ballots through usability testing before live testing on Election Day. 

  • Municipal and county districts overlap to create what are called "ballot styles." For example, there are places in Washington State where you could possibly have a unique ballot. There -- as in many voting jurisdictions throughout the US -- many lower level contests are included in the ballot, from school board to cemetery commission. The boundaries for those districts have been drawn in dozens of different ways. The right combination could draw a circle around your house. And yet, the county election official must ensure that you get to vote on exactly the contests you are entitled to. For this reason, some counties end up generating hundreds of ballot styles as different levels of districts overlap.

Poor ballot design affects the outcome of elections

When ballots are badly designed, voters get frustrated. People lose confidence in elections. Supporting elections on Election Day becomes difficult for poll workers.

All voters are affected by poor ballot designs. Older voters, first time voters, some minorities, and voters who have less education are very likely to make mistakes that prevent them from voting as they intend. Even white, wealthy, educated voters make mistakes on ballots. That's what happened in 2000. 

Although the butterfly ballot became the emblem for bad ballot design, we continue to see ballot design problems, both in paper ballots and on electronic touch screen systems. Technology has introduced more design problems. It has not solved them.

Voting: the 233-year-old design problem
There are best practice guidelines, commissioned by the US Election Assistance Commission from AIGA's Design for Democracy project, that are evidence-based. Voting system manufacturers are gradually supporting more and more of the guidelines, as local election officials demand it. States are updating election code to loosen design requirements. Local election officials embrace these changes. Although change can be difficult, these particular changes can make the jobs of local election officials easier because the voter's franchise is more likely to be protected with every design improvement.

Design can change the world. This is our superpower. We can affect the accuracy and accessibility of elections. But there aren't nearly enough people who are interested in civic design. Join the movement at the most important panel in the Free World, at South by Southwest in Austin on Monday, March 14 at 3:30 Central time. (Follow #uxvote on Twitter.) There we'll have on hand Dana Debeauvoir, county clerk from Travis County, Texas with Ric Grefe, the executive director of AIGA and the Design for Democracy project, along with Larry Norden, a civil rights lawyer and senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. I'll be moderating. See you there. And at poll worker training for the next election.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Guidelines for a Plain Language Ballot

These guidelines are based on the results of an empirical study comparing a ballot with traditional language instructions (Ballot A) to a ballot with plain language instructions (Ballot B).
Voters were more accurate voting the ballot with plain language instructions. Voters preferred the ballot with plain language instructions by a wide margin (82%).

What to say and where to say it

  1. Be specific. Give people the information they need.

  2. At the beginning of the ballot, explain how to vote, how to change a vote, and that voters may write in a candidate.

  3. Put instructions where voters need them.  For example, save the instructions on how to use the write-in page for the write-in page.

  4. Include information that will prevent voters from making errors, such as a caution to not write in someone who is already on the ballot.

  5. On an electronic voting system, never have a page with only a page title (such as the Ballot A page that just said Non-partisan offices).

  6. Make the page title the title of the office (State Supreme Court Chief Justice rather than Retention Question).

  7. Have voters confirm that they are ready to cast their vote with a Cast Vote button, not a Confirm button.

  8.  At the end, tell people that their vote has been recorded.

How to say it

  1. Write short sentences.
  2. Use short, simple, everyday words. For example, do not use "retention" and "retain." Use "keep" instead. For another example, use "for" and "against" for amendments and measures rather than "accept" and "reject."
  3. Do not use voting jargon ("partisan" "non-partisan") unless the law requires you to do so. If the law requires these words, work to change the law. Instead refer to contests as "party-based" and "non-party-based."
  4. Address the reader directly with "you" or the imperative ("Do x.").
  5. Write in the active voice, where the person doing the action comes before the verb.
  6. Write in the positive. Tell people what to do rather than what not to do.
  7. Put context before action, "if" before "then." For example, To vote for the candidate of your choice, touch that person’s name.
  8. When you want people to act, focus on verbs rather than nouns. For example, Write in a candidate's name.
  9. When giving people instructions that are more than one step, give each step as an item in a numbered list.
  10. Do not number other instructions. When the instructions are not sequential steps, use separate paragraphs with bold beginnings instead of numbering.
  11. Put information in the order that voters need it. Don’t tempt voters to irrevocable actions before explaining the other options.

What to make it look like

  1. Break information into short sections that each cover only one point.
  2. Keep paragraphs short. A one-sentence paragraph is fine.
  3. Separate paragraphs by a space so each paragraph stands out on the page.
  4. Do not use italics.
  5. Use bold for page titles.
  6. Use bold to highlight keywords or sections of the instructions, but don’t overdo it.
  7. Keep all the instructions in the left column. Do not put instructions under the choices for a contest.
  8. Do not use all capital letters for emphasis.  Use bold.  Write all instructions in appropriate upper case and lower case as you would in regular sentences. If the law requires you to use all capital letters, work to change the law.
  9. Use a sans serif font in a readable type size.

These guidelines are part of a report on research commissioned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The research was conducted by Janice ("Ginny") Redish and Dana Chisnell, with Sharon Laskowski and Svetlana Lowry of NIST. You can download the full report at

Attending South by Southwest Interactive? Come see the most important panel on the program: "Voting: the 233-year-old design problem" with Dana Chisnell, Larry Norden, Ric Grefe, and Dana Debeauvoir, Monday, March 14 at 3:30 pm in 9ABC in the Austin Convention Center. Come say hello! 

Labels: , , ,