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June 2005 Contents

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UPA Joins Forces with Design for Democracy
(and Other Voting and Usability News)

by Whitney Quesenbery

Whitney Interactive Design, LLC

President of Usability Professionals' Association

1. Design for Democracy
When I first started the Voting and Usability project, back in late 2000, I assumed that this would be a short-lived project. But five years later, our activities have only increased and broadened in scope. The usability of elections and other interactions with our government are even more important today, as governments around the world move much of their communications with citizens online.

To help us meet the challenge of ensuring that good design and usability are top priorities, UPA has joined forces with AIGA in Design for Democracy. Working together, we have a broader presence in advocacy for the importance of usability and design, and can mobilize more professionals in information design, industrial design, usability and design research – all for a greater impact.

Both of these organizations have a strong track record in elections work, with complementary aims:

  • Working directly with voting officials in Illinois and Oregon, designers, students and researchers in the Election Design project created new designs for voter education literature, voter registration materials, election worker manuals and polling place signage.
  • In the Vote-by-Mail project, user researchers designed a self-documentary technique called visual stories to collect information about the experience of voting by mail in the State of Oregon.
  • The UPA Voting and Usability project has participated in the development of new federal voting systems standards as part of an appointed federal advisory committee to the US Election Assistance Commission, and on an IEEE standards committee, and on projects for the Design Council (UK) and Federal Election Commission (US).

In addition, leaders in both projects have become recognized as experts in the design and usability of election materials, working with the officials who can use our skills and expertise to help them do their jobs better.

Design for Democracy goes beyond elections, with initiatives for emergencies and evacuations, immigration, transportation, wage and salary reporting. The project serves all intersections between the government and the governed.

We are just beginning the process of working together, but our collaboration has already produced results. At UPA 2004, the workshop (with participants from both UPA, AIGA and NIST, along with other social scientists and system designers) on Voting and Usability produced a white paper on Summative Usability Testing of Voting Systems (PDF). This paper has been cited in other publications, helping inform the discussion of how to best test ballots and voting systems.

More recently, we have met with both state and federal election officials to talk about future projects. We are also planning a workshop in the fall to continue discussions of how to do low-cost usability tests of ballots and other election materials before each election.

2. London Elects Workshop on Ballot Design and Instructions
In June 2004, London held an election with new rules allowing preferential choices for Mayor. Our email lit up in the days after that election, as it came to light that many voters had trouble marking their ballots. With a new preferential system of voting for Mayor of London (just one of the races), and the fact that there were multiple elections (all with their own rules) on a single ballot, there were many votes left blank or marked invalidly. What no one knows is why this happened. Were these deliberate choices, or a result of poor usability of the design and instructions?

Project director Louise Ferguson has been an active voice in the UK elections scene, making presentations to IPPR and New Media Knowledge (NMK) on E-Voting: Designing for People (PPT). This talk led to a meeting at the Electoral Commission to exchange views on how the usability of elections can be improved.

Someone must have been listening, because the London authorities have decided to hold a workshop to look into the design of the ballot papers and instructions to the vote, and Louise has been invited to be one of the participants. This work is aimed at recommending changes (some of which may require new legislation to update design prescriptions in the law) for the elections in 2008, so it’s particularly gratifying to have participants who understand usability included in this workshop.

3. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) Voting Guidelines Work
For the last nine months, I have been working on an Advisory Committee to propose new US federal voting systems guidelines to the EAC. Our committee (the TGDC: Technical Guidelines Development Committee) is made up of elections officials, technical experts and representatives from the Access Board and other standards associations, and works with scientists at NIST who do the real work of research and writing. I am the chair of the subcommittee on Human Factors and Privacy, and work with Sharon Laskowski of the Information Technology Lab at NIST.

On May 9, we delivered our recommendations for updates to the current standards to the EAC. This version includes a new section on usability and accessibility that updates the accessibility guidelines from the previous version and adds usability guidelines for the first time.

What Happens Next?
First the EAC reviews our recommendations, makes any changes they decide on, and then releases a draft version for review. This starts a 90-day period for public comment. The EAC (and their Advisory Board and Standards Board) will hold public hearings and collect comment from the public. Changes may be made based on this input, and the EAC will then present their recommended Voluntary Voting System Guidelines to Congress.

There are two important lessons here if you want to be part of the process.

  1. Things in the government move slowly. Working in a public, transparent way, and listening to input takes time. Even scheduling a simple meeting requires two weeks notification. But this also means that everyone has a chance to participate (and meeting minutes, transcripts and broadcasts are all posted on the web site).
  2. Your voice can be heard. Both the NIST staff and the Committee read all of the public comments, so a well-considered letter that clearly and concisely addresses an issue can have an impact. UPA members testified along with experts in information design, usability methods, user research, accessibility and plain language at Committee hearings in September, 2004.
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