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Wait ... What? The Need for Usability in Election Materials

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[Image courtesy of cs.byu.edu]

After weeks of controversy where it wasn't clear if, how or when voters in Cuyahoga County, OH, would get their absentee ballots, a new issue has arisen: the ballots themselves aren't clear.

The Plain Dealer has the story:

The Nov. 8 ballot asks Cuyahoga County voters whether they wish to approve three state issues. But some who are voting early are wondering where to mark their votes. The confusion will be the same for those who go to the polls on Election Day.

The "yes" and "no" ovals that normally are under the wording for an issue appear to be missing for the state issues. The ovals aren't under the English version of the questions. They only are under the Spanish translations.

This is the first election in which bilingual ballots will be distributed countywide. The ballot design is particularly hard to follow because two of the three state issues are spread over two columns -- leaving no place to vote in the column with the English-language wording.

UPDATE: Over at Election Updates, the pathologically resourceful Charles Stewart has provided this link to a sample of the ballot in question.

The problem here is one of usability, which is defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) as "the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use."

This issue isn't unique to Cuyahoga and it isn't exclusively a problem with bilingual ballots. The problems with the now-infamous Palm Beach "butterfly ballot" in 2000 were likely the result of usability, as was the disputed Florida Congressional District 13 election in 2006.

The lesson is clear: election officials need to incorporate usability into their operations. However, traditional usability testing can be involved, time-consuming and expensive - three ingredients that don't necessary mesh with today's tight fiscal environment. Fortunately, there is a more straightforward method, which usability professional Dana Chisnell calls "in the wild" testing and which she summarizes as "Sit next to someone. Watch them do stuff."

What you get from usability testing is experience with how people in the real world interact with materials before they are used in the world for real. Such knowledge is especially important in the world of elections where usability issues can interfere (or perceived to interfere) with election outcomes.

Of course, all of this occurs within the overall environment for elections, where other concerns, like Cuyahoga's language requirements and postage issues, also play a role. Usability testing, however, can be used to help inform these decisions - giving election officials an opportunity to weigh the impact of legal and administrative requirements on usability and vice versa. Knowing is almost literally half the battle.

The important thing to remember, however, is that usability - to paraphrase Chisnell, the science of "how people use stuff" - has to be a factor in anything we do in the field of elections. At the end of Election Day, elections are a one voter, one ballot exercise ... and if nothing else we want to make sure the ballot and the voter can understand one another.

2 Comments


  • One super quick, easy, and cheap way that elections officials can get usability data is to conduct informal test sessions using the LEO Usability Test Kit, developed by the Usability Professionals' Association. (LEO stands for Local Election Official.) It's available here: http://www.upassoc.org/civiclife/voting/leo_testing.html

    The Usability Test Kit was designed specifically with local elections officials and their schedules in mind. There are 3 short documents:

    - A planning guide that will help demystify the process by giving guidance on how many "voters" to observe, what to look for, and what to do when, with checklists.

    - A script for running each individual session with a voter trying out the ballot. It's a template that is editable for your situation and the questions you want to answer.

    - A sample test report. You'll want to tell your department, any observers, and the public how the usability test went. This is a template for reporting the results.

    We know that doing very simple and informal usability observations before final ballots are published can make a huge difference in whether voters are able to vote the way they intend.

    But we also know that local election departments don't always have resources available. That's why the Usability Professionals' Association Usability in Civic Life Project and AIGA's Design for Democracy Project are collaborating to conduct "flash" usability tests whenever we get the call. We have a roster of usability professionals all over the U.S. who have volunteered to help out on such projects.

    We've conducted tests for state and local election departments from Florida to Minnesota, to New York and California. We've also held classes at state conventions including Ohio, Kansas, Texas, and California.

    If you would like to know more about the LEO Usability Test Kit or our "flash" usability tests or classes, contact me -- Dana Chisnell -- at dana@usabilityworks.net, Whitney Quesenbery at whitneyq@wqusability.com, or Drew Davies at drew@oxidedesign.com.

    P.S. Thanks for the shout out, Doug!

  • I'm all about the shout-out, Dana - thanks for the info ...

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