What I’m working on now

There is the perception that because the Presidential election is over, there’s a break in the election cycle. But now is exactly when all the real work gets done.

My goal in civic life is ensuring that voters can vote the way they intend. Turns out that apparently simple thing has a lot of moving parts.

Right now, there are 4 projects, which to me feel interlocking, working on the same problem from different angles and with amazing partners.


Anywhere, any time, any device accessible, responsive ballot front end 

Funded by Election Assistance Commission through a sub grant from ITIF

The idea here is to create a ballot template that can be served through a browser (whether connected to the Internet, or not) on any device. It seems clear that election officials are starting to implement tablets in elections for things like e-poll books. In Oregon, the election division there has developed a ballot marking system that runs on iPads that they’ve used successfully with people with disabilities.

This project came out of trying to answer the question, How can we make voting more accessible to people with disabilities? Well, what if people could vote on their own device? Anywhere they were? We’re hoping this project takes that one little step toward making that a reality.

I’m delighted to be working with Drew Davies of Oxide Design Co. and Kathryn Summers, Ph.D. at University of Baltimore. We conducted one round of usability tests on paper prototypes of a tablet-sized ballot user interface with 18 participants in November 2012. Some of our participants had reading disabilities and low literacy. Having them in the study was amazing and wonderful. They were brilliant help to us in getting to better flow and simple, clear headings, instructions, and button labels.

In January 2013, we’ll test a digital prototype with 15 or so more participants. We’re going to invite some of our low lit participants back, and also invite several older adults who are experiencing short-term memory loss and the beginnings of dementia.


County election website usability 

Supported by 320 backers from Kickstarter and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

When you want to know about the next election — where to vote, what’s on the ballot, what the deadline for registering is — where do you go? Did you know that your state has a web site with this information? Probably not. Hardly anyone knows that. Where are voters more likely to go? Somewhere local, like your county or town website. They have loads of information, but they’re not usually trained web designers.

So we (that is, Cyd Harrell, Ethan Newby, and I) thought we’d take a wide look at what county and town election websites are offering and then conduct some usability testing sessions.

With the help of 17 amazing volunteers, we’ve cataloged 147 county or town websites that give us a range of large and small, urban and rural, lots of minority population and little minority population. The early insights are fascinating!

Also with the help of more than a dozen volunteer interviewers and notetakers, we’re in the midst of conducting usability test sessions through screen-sharing services to learn where county websites are helping voters find the answers to their questions (and where they’re not helping). With about 50 voters helping us out by using their county or town website to answer the questions they had about voting on November 6, we should come out of this with some suggestions for county webmasters that will make their jobs easier, help bring down the call volume leading up to elections, and will ensure that voters can vote the way they intend. We plan to wrap up data collection before Christmas and hope to have a new Field Guide by the beginning of February 2013.


Voter ed usability, understandability

Supported by 320 backers from Kickstarter and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Election boards across the US bust their butts trying to help voters be well-informed. They do this through voter education programs and outreach. But some election officials have been finding over the last few elections that what they’re doing is less effective than it used to be. What to do?

Whitney Quesenbery and I thought we’d take a look at the kinds of print materials and online information counties and towns are offering, take apart what kinds of content are in those pieces, and get reactions from voters who speak English as a second language and some who are new to voting, to see whether we can learn what content is most helpful to this audience. In turn, if we can learn what makes voter ed content effective, perhaps we can give guidance to election officials that will help them make their voter ed programs more valuable, useful, and accessible to voters.

We’re thinking this will eventually give us material for a Field Guide, too, coming out round about the beginning of March, maybe in time to get them to election officials as they prepare for summer elections and primaries.


Poll worker security in polling places on Election Day

Funded by an EAGER grant from the National Science Foundation

Most voters vote at polling places. Critical to the success of polling places on Election Day are poll workers. To ensure that votes are counted as cast, poll workers perform hundreds of small steps during that long day — and many of those small steps are related to security. By “security,” I mean, are election materials protected, tracked, and stored properly? Are voting systems closed where they should be and open and operating where they must be for voters to cast ballots?

With Whitney Quesenbery and Doug Chapin, we’re trying to learn what could help make poll workers be comfortable and effective in carrying out secure elections. To do that, Whitney and I are observing elections in 8 places this spring, hoping to shadow poll workers as they set up the polls, open them, close the polls, and shut them down.

In addition to observing on election days, we’ll interview poll workers, the people who train them, and whoever is in charge of security in the local election department. We’re wondering about the culture of security in election departments, and what factors go into making poll workers aware of and attentive to security in the polling place.

We’re hoping that this is just the beginning of this investigation. Our main purpose is to find out whether there is a problem and if so, how big it is. Next, we’ll dig deeper to learn where design (including training and practice) can help poll workers be even more awesome.

This project goes through September 2013.

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