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Election Day in the US: The User Experience of Voting

The user experience of US voters today may be one of the more interesting discussions outside of the actual election results. The usability of voting systems and ballots has been a topic vital to elections officials, none of whom want to become the latest poster child for problematic elections. The Help America Vote Act was passed in the wake of the infamous 2000 election, and that has helped generate awareness and efforts to deliver more usable voting systems and ballots. Here are a few sites to visit to learn about these efforts.

In a recent interview with Scott Berkun, Dana Chisnell discusses the current state of usable ballot design.

The UPA Voting and Usability project site provides numerous articles and resources generated by the project to promote awareness and deliver tools for election officials.

The Brennan Center for Justice sponsored usability studies of ballots around the country this year and is just one of many sites, including new organizations such as NPR and CNN, inviting voters to report any issues they've experienced with this election, from registration to casting a ballot.

As a Floridian, the spotlight that gets shined on my home state around elections since 2000 can be a little uncomfortable. For everyone in the US, however, this attention and the accompanying awareness that successful user experience design is integral to successful democracy can only benefit our country. For anyone interested in user experience design, it provides a concrete example of what this field is about and the benefits it offers.

I encourage all Americans to vote today. I further invite you to write about your own user experience, either in this community or link us to your blog or website. Since many sites are already collecting lists of the problems being encountered, consider writing about what was good or improved from that last election in your user experience in voting.

While it may not be an election day elsewhere, I'd also be interested in hearing about the user experiences of election days outside the US. I know that Canadians went to their polls on October 14, so understanding the best of both recent experiences benefits everyone.

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I live in a small town just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I voted this morning. Contrary to my worries, I found the wait to be fairly short (10 minutes). Our voting centers use the touch screen machines (I'm not sure of the brand). I noticed two usability issues:

1. All of the interaction with the voting machine is performed via a touch screen except for a single action which requires the voter to press a physical “Vote” button. This is confusing because it’s not obvious that the “Vote” button is actually a button (and not a decoration). Furthermore, when it is time to press the “Vote” button, the screen displays a message that states something like “The VOTE button is now lit” and a red light behind the “Vote” button starts to flash. The problem is that the display never tells the voter to actually press the button. In the short time that I was at the voting center, I overheard this issue being discussed several times.

2. The display doesn’t include an overview of the steps involved in the voting procedure, so the voter doesn’t know where they are in the process at any given time. Also, the voter doesn’t know what options they will have later in the process. For example, one of the final steps of the voting procedure asks the voter to confirm his or her selections (which is helpful), but while making selections earlier in the process, the voter isn’t told that he or she will be given a chance to confirm selections later. Also, when voting for several different positions and issues, the voting is separated onto multiple screens due to space limitations and it is easy to get lost.

Both of these issues may contribute to slower voting (and longer lines), but probably have little effect on accuracy. I do find the touch screen to show choices and selections very clearly. Based on a report on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer (11/3/2008), it seems that the regulatory process for these machines is fairly lengthy, so it is probably not feasible for the manufacturer to update the software for small usability issues. This is unfortunate since one of the traditional benefits of the touch screen display is that it can be changed (relatively) easily.
While stories about elections and voting abound today, I thought an NPR interview with Skye Christensen of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems on how voting happen around the world to be especially interesting and certainly germane to this discussion. Mr. Christensen touches on how some countries handle illiteracy, overcome voters' remoteness from polling place, and make election day a national holiday or have elections on weekends to encourage participation. He also shared that the US has invited election observers who have been here for a few months and will issue a report about our election fairness after today.

The full audio will be available from the NPR site at 7:00 ET.
Hi Karen - my apologies for taking awhile to respond.

Btw: super idea to publish the above on 'ballot design' and the user experience. This is the first year I voted remotely, by mail. I'd recommend this approach for it's ease-of-use: no lines to wait in, availability of Internet resources to check local/state issues, and it's more relaxed!

Hope all is well!
/Lisa

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