Let me just preface this post by saying it is not a political piece. We won’t be endorsing any candidates, parties, or policies; we’re simply looking at elections through our user experience lenses and exploring how we might improve the voting experience for everyone, regardless of political ideology or party affiliation.
We're exploring this topic because most democratic citizens agree on the importance of voting. Improving any aspect of our most crucial civic responsibility would go a long way towards ensuring our governments are representative of the constituents they’re sworn to represent. Let’s take a look at a few UX principles that could help improve the integrity of elections around the world.
Consistency of Information and Experience
Can you imagine what it would be like if commonly used digital products or apps changed their UI and UX depending on when and where you accessed them? Imagine your Gmail inbox being completely different when you login at home versus at work - that's the current voting experience in the US and other developed countries around the world. Ballots not only look different from one district to another, but the actual practice of voting is also different.
Some will remember the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election, where paper punch card ballots in Florida resulted in "hanging chads" - these are bits of paper that weren't completely punched through. As a result, some citizen's votes were never counted, creating a big controversy around the election's final results. Thankfully, not all states had the same issues because punch card ballots weren't used across all voting districts. One of the only positives to come out of the "hanging chad" controversy was a great Halloween costume worn by Ted Mosby, a character from How I Met Your Mother:
The voting experience can be so different from one district to the next because elections in the U.S. are given local control - this means that decisions about voting and ballots are made at the local level all across the United States. There are no laws requiring any kind of consistency across ballots, and information can be presented differently in different locations.
Local control can result in a lot of confusion if people making decisions about ballots have no regard for design or user experience - it's hard to say exactly how many votes go uncounted due to user error each year, but back in 2000 it is estimated that between 4 million and 6 million votes went uncounted in the U.S. Presidential Election. That represents approximately 5% of the total votes submitted!
A consistent layout across all ballots, along with consistent and functional methods for placing your vote, would do wonders to reduce confusion for voters.
Layout and Readability
You need more than just consistent layout to conduct a fair election. You also want the information and instructions on a ballot to be clear and helpful. Sometimes you'll come face to face with a ballot that is overfilled with information - this can cause voters to skip reading the instructions and ultimately result in ballots being filled out incorrectly. Other times ballots will have so few instructions you're left trying to figure out what is required to submit your vote.
Designers spend a lot of time focusing on how to best convey information through text. The "readability" of a particular document is important, because it can dictate how engaged the person will be when interacting with the end product. In the case of ballots, a well-designed layout that adheres to readability best practices will help reduce confusion for everyone, but particularly first time voters and the elderly who may need a bit more hand holding at the polls.
Accessibility and Leveraging Technology
We know that digital election machines can be - and have been - compromised, but paper ballots can be tampered with as well. We shouldn't let fear get in the way of improving the voting experience by leveraging technology; we have the means to make voting easier and more accessible for all. Most people of voting age have a smartphone these days - what is stopping us from building secure mobile voting interfaces?
We've seen simple polls being used more on digital platforms over the past couple of years, and they're surprisingly engaging. It would be amazing to see what kind of concepts the top UX and Design minds could come up with for our elections. A digital voting platform would also make consistency and readability much easier to implement at scale.
The future of democratic elections is going to be fascinating to watch and experience first hand. Many are curious about when governments will embrace technology, while others are worried about the possible downsides of incorporating technology into our elections. Hopefully we experience a future where UX researchers and designers play a key role in safeguarding and promoting the democratic process.