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
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.
- 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 vote.nist.gov web site).
- 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.