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]

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