What Voting Needs: KM and Better Design

Election 2012 Voting on Tuesday was an unforgettable experience. We were welcomed at the door of the neighborhood elementary school by a cheerful poll worker who wished us a good morning, ushered us into the building and then carefully directed us to the school cafeteria where the voting booths were located.

That was the last time we received clear and easy-to-follow instructions.

Now don’t get me wrong. Everyone was polite and kind. A few were even downright jolly. But  some poll workers — and many voters — clearly were a little confused.

What was so confusing?

  • There were several bits of paper to process and lists to check before I was handed a ballot.
  • The lines for the voting booths and the scanning stations snaked around the room haphazardly and generally seemed disorganized.
  • The path for the voter was neither clear nor direct. There was lots of bobbing and weaving as we tried to stay out of each other’s way in the process of stumbling from one step to the next.
  • The ballot itself was long and involved. I’m a native English speaker and have been reasonably well educated, but I had to pay attention in order to complete the ballot properly. What happened to voters with a more tenuous grasp of English?
  • The process was paper-intensive, but resulted in a digital output.  Then why so much paper?
  • There were lots of rules, but they seemed extraneous to the core job of completing a ballot and scanning it. Nonetheless, the poll workers were diligent in enforcing rules they probably would be hard pressed to explain (much less justify).

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I really can’t blame the poll workers. After all, it wasn’t as if they were doing something they had done a hundred times before or even within the last year. To be honest if you asked me to do something once every four years, I’m not sure I’d get it right every time. When you have a process like this that is infrequent, but must be carried out  reliably in a consistent fashion, you have a process that is in desperate need of a well-documented practice guide. In fact, the knowledge management professional in me was dying to offer to stand there, observe how they worked, find a little positive deviance, and then write up a practice guide that they could use later to prepare for a better voting experience in the 2016 election.

Later I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who viewed the voting experience through the particular lens of their own profession. If you look at commentary in the user experience community, you’ll find no shortage of criticism of the poor design that resulted in a suboptimal voting user experience in several places, including New York and Chicago. To be fair, voting presents a significant usability challenge. As Whitney Quesenbery observes:

Voting may be one of the most difficult usability challenges because it is a task completed by virtually anyone, it is done infrequently, it is never exactly the same because the actual ballot differs for each election, and privacy requirements make it difficult for voters to seek help in using the voting system.

Voting on Tuesday was unforgettable. The experience of standing peacefully next to our neighbors to exercise our rights as citizens is something we should never take for granted. That said, I’m in the innovation and improvement business and can’t help seeing opportunities to make the experience better for voters and poll workers alike. In my humble opinion a little more attention to design and knowledge management could have vastly improved the voting user experience.

So let me end with a question for you: Are the processes within your organization well-designed and supported by helpful practice guides or do they resemble the voting user experience?

[Photo Credit: League of Women Voters of California]


Don’t Break Noses

He nearly broke my nose yesterday. We were both walking at the typical New York City pace (fast), when I rounded the corner and almost ploughed right into him. If we hadn’t stopped ourselves in time, we would have had a broken nose or two.

What happened?  We were walking in opposite directions in tunnels that connected two separate subway lines.   The problem was caused by the architect and builders of those tunnels who clearly didn’t spend even one nanosecond thinking about traffic patterns. If they had, they wouldn’t have created a path that put this man and me on a  collision course.  Since we both were essentially blind going around that corner, we had to rely on the foresight and thoughtfulness of the architect and builders.  Unfortunately, their design let us down.

Now think about the paths you create in your various knowledge management systems.  Have you designed them thoughtfully, taking care to make things simple and intuitive for your users?  Or, have you set your users up for frustration and, possibly, a broken nose?


Here are some additional resources if you’re interested in reading about usability and design:

[Photo Credit:  rytc]


Why KM Needs Good Design

If you don’t believe design matters, read this post, buy a can of Altoids and reconsider. I heard a great story at lunch on Sunday of a presentation made by Claudia Kotchka, Proctor & Gamble’s design and innovation maven, who explained what made Altoids great. And then, to drive the point home, showed her audience what would result if the green eye shade guys designed Altoids. Once they removed the tin (too expensive) and the paper (unnecessary), they ended up with something Claudia Kotchka calls “Proctoids.” The packaging was “a box made of cheap white plastic from P&G’s baby-wipe containers.” Very appealing. In fact, according to one report, “[w]ith uniform beige ovals jammed into the container, fewer colors on the lid, and no paper, Proctoids taste like Altoids, but they look as appealing as a pile of horse pills.” Unfortunately, people aren’t as willing to pay the 400% premium for unappealing horse pills in a plastic case as they are for the pleasure they get from opening that Altoids tin.

Now, let’s think about knowledge management systems as if they were P&G consumer products. What would your intranet look like if Claudia Kotchka was in charge of its design? What about your blogs and wikis? Your document management system? Not sure? Well, here’s the test: Would the lawyers in your law firm pay a 400% premium to use your KM system? If not, you should consider applying Claudia Kotchka’s design principles as reported by Chas Martin at Innovativeye:

1. Make it user centric through a deep understanding of user habits [and] need – physical and emotional.

2. Make it collaborative. Never work alone. There is no one right answer, so it’s not cheating to share information. A mix of skills are essential. (See Ten Faces of Innovation)

3. Challenge Mental Models. Ask different questions. The problem will look different, requiring a different type of solution.

4. Abductive. Start with prototype solution and test it. Learn backwards and logic the way to explain the result.

5. Experimental. Designers prototype with visual and tangible models. It’s easier to discuss something you can see. Prototyping starts the dialogue. It’s not the solutions, but [the] first of a continuous series [of] possible solutions. The second version can be radically different.

Good design is about problem solving, making things work better, and finding new opportunities. According to Tom Armitage, web developer at Headshift, “Design is not how it looks.” A.G. Lafley, the CEO of P&G, understood this when he asked Claudia Kotchka to incorporate design into P&B’s approach to business. In his words: “The goal is to transform the company from a place that’s good at selling `more goop, better’ into one whose products infuse delight into customers’ lives.”

Are your customers as happy as P&G’s? If not, make sure you incorporate the principles of good design at the planning stages of any KM implementation to ensure an end-product that works beautifully and delights your users.