The Voting Process through a Behavioral Lens

Who votes, why do they vote, and how can design encourage political engagement?

Meet Michelle.

She is politically engaged and highly informed about politics. She has been a fervent follower of the news this election cycle. Michelle is not just a consumer of political content, she is also a broadcaster who posts on social media, tweets/retweets, and shares interesting stories with her network. She values her right to vote, but also actively convinces her friends and family to do the same.

Meet Lucio.

He is interested in politics - particularly issues that hit close to home. He does not care as much about other issues, and is not proactively searching for ways to make a difference. He voted in this year’s primary, mainly because his sister kept insisting he do so.

Meet Zachary.

He is what we might call apathetic. He is not engaged politically and usually does not follow politics, nor does he have any interest in doing so. He does not follow political news and actively avoids conversations around related topics.

Michelle, Lucio, and Zachary represent young people with vastly different levels of personal involvement and motivation with regards to the political process. To better understand their thinking around voting, let’s look at the BJ Fogg behavior model:

According to this model, for a behavior to occur (in this instance, registering to vote or voting), three elements must converge: motivation, ability, and trigger.

Motivation

Potential voters start with a different baseline level of motivation:

  • For Michelle, regardless of any difficulties she may encounter along the way, she will make sure to cast her vote, one way or another.
  • For Lucio, he relies on his family to navigate the cumbersome and sometimes confusing voting process. He may need a little nudge to help him get to the front of the voting booth.
  • For Zachary, elections are not a priority. It would be very hard to convert him into an actual voter.

Motivation is something that each person has built up over time, through a combination of their background, education, family, influencers, etc. A highly motivated person would “stomach” more difficult processes than a less motivated person. So motivation, while important, is relatively fixed and hard to change (short of providing incentives).

So instead of focusing on motivation, groups that seek to encourage voting often choose to focus on ability (in this case, meaning how easy something is to do) and adjust accordingly.

Ability

While it’s harder to simplify the voting process as a whole, some of the challenges associated with ability can be alleviated. For instance, it would be difficult to change the rules related to state registration deadlines, or voting on Tuesday, or closed primaries, etc. But organizations, like TurboVote, can and are making things like absentee voting and registering online (for states that allow it) easier.

Still, while it is possible to improve ability and move to the right in our chart, deeply ingrained election law makes sure there is only so far you can go.

Trigger

Which brings us to triggers.

Even when the level of motivation is met with the right level of ability, a person still needs to be prompted to register or vote. They need a trigger.

What could these triggers be?

A trigger can take many forms — an alarm that sounds, a text message, an announcement that a sale is ending, a growling stomach, and so on. [S]uccessful triggers have three characteristics: First, we notice the trigger. Second, we associate the trigger with a target behavior. Third, the trigger happens when we are both motivated and able to perform the behavior. This last issue — timing — is often the missing element in behavior change. In fact, this element is so important the ancient Greeks had a name for it: kairos — the opportune moment to persuade.

— BJ Fogg (2009), “A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design.

In a recent research study, conducted by SAP’s Design and Co-Innovation Center to understand first-time voter behavior, we found two aspects that help make a successful trigger.

  1. Timing: While the campaign cycle may seem long and drawn out (especially compared to other countries), it does provide moments of “renewed urgency,” like at the end of every primary election, whenever a new “story of the week” is being discussed, with every debate, etc. Reminders that are tied to these “milestones” are perceived to be timely and relevant (even if a number of these events occur).
  2. Trust: Another important factor is personal contact. We found this to be the number one factor that differentiates any prompt (notification, message, conversation) from “the noise”. You are more likely to notice a trigger if it is coming from someone you know and trust versus someone else, when it can be perceived as annoying spam or simply be ignored.

The media often portrays millennial voters as disengaged and unmotivated political participants. Our research, however, shows that this is not always the case. Not every voter has the same level of motivation, same ease with which they navigate the process, or same support network to trigger trips to the voting booth. Using B.J. Fogg’s behavioral model is helpful in thinking about how to bridge the gap between intention and action.

In tactical terms, the behavioral model becomes relevant when thinking about designing triggers. Consider timing and trust in increasing the efficacy of your triggers to incite action. Instead of a standard trigger that goes out at a fixed time (i.e. Monday morning), one may want to explore sending on a more calculated schedule (say, at the same time as each debate). And instead of notifications being sent directly from the service, designers may want to consider designing pre-filled triggers (or scripts) that can be easily shared or forwarded by more engaged users to their own networks.

Since today is National Voter Registration Day, we’d love to hear from you. What are examples you have come across of triggers, tactics, and approaches that worked? How did they manifest? How different were they for the Michelles, Lucios, and Zacharys out there?

Comment on this post or send us a tweet here.


This blog post is part of a series showcasing the findings of a qualitative study conducted by SAP’s Design & Co-Innovation Center and commissioned by Democracy Works to better understand first-time voters in the US. To learn more about the study, feel free to reach out to the author.

And sign up at TurboVote: turbovote.org