The Election as a Design Problem

Podcast (30:04) | Can we talk about voter information as a user experience design challenge?

Metric: A UX Podcast | Image by Frank McKenna via Unsplash

When we talk about the user experience we are treating it like a metric: a plottable, predictable, and improvable measurement of the end-user’s cumulative experience of a service. We care because we know that investing in a good user experience has positive returns on the numbers businesses and organizations care about — foot traffic, database usage, profit …, and so on.

If we can apply this to civic participation, where we want people to vote — that’s the number we care about, voter turnout — can we then approach the challenge of improving this number by improving the user experience of voting?

I think it’s an interesting question, so this week Amanda and I dedicated our time on the podcast to it.

Specifically, in the thirty or so minutes we had, we wondered at the quality of voter information, and how the problem of the echo chamber isn’t so much a flaw in the platform but a byproduct of what Ben Thompson called an “aggregated voter” — basically, the voter in an age where the user experience and not the objective value of the product (in this case, the message) is what determines success.

Back in March, Ben Thompson came just shy of predicting the election of Donald Trump by looking at this through the lens of aggregation theory.

Said reticence, though, creates a curious dynamic in politics in particular: there is no one dominant force when it comes to the dispersal of political information, and that includes the parties described in the previous section. Remember, in a Facebook world, information suppliers are modularized and commoditized as most people get their news from their feed.

He continues:

This has two implications:
- All news sources are competing on an equal footing; those controlled or bought by a party are not inherently privileged
- The likelihood any particular message will “break out” is based not on who is propagating said message but on how many users are receptive to hearing it. The power has shifted from the supply side to the demand side
This is a big problem for the parties as described in The Party Decides. Remember, in Noel and company’s description party actors care more about their policy preferences than they do voter preferences, but in an aggregated world it is voters aka users who decide which issues get traction and which don’t. And, by extension, the most successful politicians in an aggregated world are not those who serve the party but rather those who tell voters what they most want to hear. …
And so, without any of the apparatus traditionally provided by parties, much of it obsoleted by the Internet, and thanks to the ability to connect directly with voters (because of aggregation), Donald Trump is marching on in direct defiance of the Republican Party’s decision.
Ben Thompson 
The Voters Decide

This whole train of thought began for us earlier in the month after reading Monique Marchwiany’s The UX of Voting is Miserable.

We agree. Mostly.

While lines, the systems, and the process of voting can be improved, we’re thinking that there may be an unspoken benefit if the ballot itself remains a little harder to use. Not obtuse or intentionally misleading, but maybe its use of white-space continues to suck. You know.

The idea is that we can deliberately design poor usability to ensure that a part of the process — in this case, the actual voting part — requires more care. It’s an argument against Marchwiany’s suggestion that the bubbles next to uncontested candidates are pre-filled (smart defaults).

Sure, you wouldn’t have to color in the circle, but maybe there’s value asking voters to decide whether to fill it in at all.

Wow, what a ride. Thank you so much for reading this far. These are show notes to a podcast I do, one I’m really proud. It would be really nice of you if you gave it a try. You can download the MP3 or subscribe to Metric: A UX Podcast on Stitcher, iTunes, YouTube, Soundcloud, Google Music, or just plug our feed straight into your podcatcher of choice.