Poor user experience increases voting errors and costs

This month (December 2011) a report from the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice found that in New York State's last election about 20,000 votes for governor were thrown out and 30,000 to 40,000 votes for other candidates were voided. The ballots were voided because people could not understand the voting machine's screen and error messages! This error, reminiscent of 2000 presidential election fiasco, happens over and over again because of the lack of understanding about the critical need for an excellent user experience.

This error could happen in New York's paper ballot system when the voter first fills in the circle next to a candidate's name, changes there mind, erases the mark and then fills another circle. If the voter does not completely erase the first choice, the optical scanner may count both choices - over voting. But here is where it gets interesting, after the voter completes the paper ballot they then put it through a scanning machine to verify the ballot and cast the votes. The confirmation message looks like this:

There are a lot of usability issues here, can you find them? Try to find them before you read further.

  1. Election jargon, "Over Voted," a term voters don't understand
  2. Name of the candidate is hard to read, letters that are small and in all upper case.
  3. "Hint" that does not explain the error and that the vote will not be counted.
  4. The button that will correct this issue is red and phrased in a negative.
  5. The button that permits the error is green and phrased in the positive.

These errors could have and should have been eliminated before the system was used in any election.  Now, New York State is scrambling to correct these errors before the Presidential elections in 2012.

The New York dilemma is not unique, California, Florida, Minnesota and many other states are dealing with similar usability issues. The problem with voting machines affects the outcome of elections all over the country and therefore affects everyone's future.  User Experience professionals must be consulted to eliminate these usability issues. This example also helps to illustrate how the technology we all have come to rely on benefits from good user experience.

The errors illustrated here could have been easily and inexpensively corrected by doing some basic usability testing. In my practice here at Infragistics,  I work on many business-to- business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) projects and we always recommend to our clients that usability testing be done.  Usability testing saves money and helps refine the design in many valuable ways.

I am sure that in this example from New York, many good people worked extensively on the process and thoroughly reviewed the screens -- but as I have seen time and time again, these people thought that the screens were so clear no one would have any trouble with them.  Spending as little as ten minutes with five users could have been all that was needed to find this problem! Now that the software is shipped, documentation has been written and poll workers trained it becomes a very expensive issue to fix. We are so close to our designs that we cannot see the problems, it always pays to spend a little time and money up front before you spend a lot of time and money to fix it later!

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