A Vote for Better Design

A year of electronic forensics has failed to resolve what went wrong at the polls in Florida's Sarasota County last November, when 18,000 voters mysteriously appeared...
by | October 31, 2007

A year of electronic forensics has failed to resolve what went wrong at the polls in Florida's Sarasota County last November, when 18,000 voters mysteriously appeared to skip clicking on a choice in a high-profile congressional race. But the series of local, state and federal investigations has made one thing clear: In a digital democracy, designing user-friendly electronic interfaces is a responsibility, not a luxury.

While Republican Vern Buchanan has taken the 13th District House seat in Washington, having been declared the winner by 369 votes, investigators from the U.S. Government Accountability Office plan to resume testing Sarasota's iVotronic touch-screen system later this month.

Whatever the GAO concludes will not resolve the ongoing national argument about the hodgepodge of state and local election systems or concerns about those systems' potential bugginess. But most of the experts who have looked at the Sarasota election agree that the on-screen ballot was a mess. The race between Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings was easily overlooked by voters, set as it was above a longer, more eye-catching list of candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. Jennings' lawyers reject arguments by the voting system's manufacturer that the ballot's design, not its machines, explains the large undervote. Nonetheless, all sides, including the local election supervisor, concede that the ballot - the voters' electronic interface - was confusing.

Interface simply means the way people use any given technology, while usability is a term favored by those who make software and Web sites to describe whether an interface is, in essence, easy to use. Usability also is a discipline, through which specialists help design, test and hone interfaces.

The undervote in Sarasota is an extreme example of the potential consequences of poor usability - a lapse that seems to plague many government technology ventures. Some government enterprises work hard to get their public interfaces right, but all too often routine online transactions lack that Amazon-like simplicity. Instructions also are written in bureaucratese, and help is hard to come by.

In a recent online essay on increasing the "return on investment" from e-government ventures, usability guru Jakob Nielsen showed a paper notice from California's motor vehicle department encouraging car owners to renew their vehicle registrations online. Using the Web would save customers time and the department the cost of handling transactions by mail or in person. Once online, however, vehicle owners received a message warning them to have their "special RIN Number" handy. How much business was the department turning away, Nielsen asked, simply because the Web site did not make clear that the obscure special number was an acronym for the "Renewal Identification Number," mentioned in passing in the department's paper mailing?

To avoid such confusion, a federal Web site ( offers free guidance, inexpensive seminars and online classes for governments at all levels. The message: Making usability part of a government organization's online design and testing process increases productivity, customer satisfaction and revenue while reducing the time and costs needed for development, maintenance and training. Nonetheless, many Web sites continue to greet internal and external visitors with confusing navigation, confounding search results and poorly designed online forms.

The private sector is not immune from usability problems. When I first went into the online business at another media company a dozen years ago, we proudly used an acronym, "CHA," to refer to the instructive text that we wrote to appear above any new interactive feature. CHA stood for "Click Here, A------." (I'll let you figure out the derogatory term.) This hostility came from the frustration of knowing that no matter how prominently we put the bold-faced explanatory text atop our clickable buttons and "pull-down menus," the users would not read it. Instead, they would just start clicking and blame us if that did not produce the desired result. The feedback that showed up in our e-mail almost always proved us right about our users' behavior. But we were wrong about who was to blame. In the end, any interface - whether it is designed to pay for gas, renew a vehicle registration or cast a vote - should be self-explanatory.

Poor usability is more than an annoyance or an aesthetic complaint. It is exclusionary - whether by negligence or design. It creates barriers to services and information and undermines public confidence and participation. Just ask the thousands of Democratic voters in Sarasota County who believe they were disenfranchised in last year's congressional election.


More from Technology