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A UX perspective on the US election

A UX Perspective on the US Election | Edgar Allan

If there was ever a thing that should be unquestionably clear, understandable and accessible, it is the ability to vote. Unfortunately, the U.S. voting system suffers from a distinct lack of user-centricity. Sounds like a lot of websites we know.

Getting voting (one of the most American of tasks) done simply isn't as easy as it could be. There are a few historic reasons why:

1. The U.S. is a republic of states that all have their own processes and rules, meaning there’s little consistency from one place to another. Think of this like creating every page on a site based on different frameworks. It’d feel like 100 sites smashed into one…and everyone would be lost.

2. Across our country (and especially in the South), the voting process has been made purposefully difficult post-Reconstruction to prevent specific groups from casting their vote.  Accessibility of any type isn’t a partisan issue. Everyone deserves the same access as every other person, on the web or at the polls, period.

3. And finally, the electoral system is antiquated. It simply wasn’t built for 2020. Most every other thing in our lives has become optimized and digitized for our convenience, but the electoral process lags decades behind. And in the midst of a pandemic, all of these factors mean that the system is more confused (and confusing) than ever.

Inconsistency, accessibility, and antiquated models and thinking. These are, in many ways, some of the same problems we work to solve on websites.

So, we wondered, all partisan politics aside, what would putting the American voter at the center of the experience, addressing the (very quickly upcoming) American election through the lens of a Content Design look like? And how might we use what we know works on the web to do better?

Step 1 (for Any Project): Identify the Purpose.

With a clear goal in mind, we’ll be able to make better decisions on what will work best for Americans. So, what’s the purpose of the voting process?

That’s a pretty big question, but let’s say that the goal of a democratic election is to have high engagement of any and all eligible voters who want to participate, and to increase engagement among non-voters over time. To get an idea of whether or not we’re meeting that goal, we need to look at the data. If we were building a website, we would look at metrics like bounce rate and page views. With election though, we need to look at a different set of data: voter turnout.?

Past elections give us a lot of insight into how specific policies impact the way that users (voters) engage with the system. The United States has consistently low voter turnout, which means that the current system is not doing the best job of encouraging voters to show up to the polls.

But to figure out why voters are staying home, we need to move on to Step 2: Content Discovery.

In this case, that would mean getting input from subject matter experts (election officials, academics, representatives) and users (voters) who can offer insight on what's going on.

While we don’t have any politicians ready to jump on the line with us (they’re kind of busy right now), we do have personal experience and desk research to rely upon here.  Main frustrations cited regarding voting include:

  • It's hard to understand
  • There is a lack of accessibility
  • The technology is outdated
  • The election cycle is overwhelming
  • Ballot proposals are confusing
  • It feels like my voice isn't being heard/my vote doesn't count

We may not be able to address all of these user issues, but they give us a good sense of how people feel about the system and what we should prioritize when considering improvements.

Step 3: Once we’ve interviewed our experts, we can move on to creating User Stories.

As a [person in a role]

I want to [perform an action]

So that [I can ____]

In voting, this user journey could look like

As a U.S. citizen

I want to vote for my elected officials

So that my voice can be heard.

It could also look like

As a non-voter

I want to better understand the voting process

So that I could vote in future elections.

Keeping these stories in mind, there are lots of changes that could make the system more user-friendly for voters and non-voters alike.

Individual polling practices vary significantly on the county/state level, so we’ve narrowed our list to three practices that could be implemented at the national level. While some of these concepts are politically touchy subjects, we’re approaching them as Content Designers with UX in mind, so lower your pitchforks, please.

Change #1: Ditch the electoral college for the popular vote.

Ah, the electoral college. If you can’t explain it off the top of your head, you’re not alone. 43% of Americans don’t understand how the electoral college works, which is a huge problem, given that it’s the way that we elect our highest office.

Referring back to our top complaints from voters about the current system, the electoral college hits on a few of them:

  • It’s hard to understand
  • It feels like my voice isn’t being heard / my vote doesn’t count
  • The election cycle is overwhelming

From a content design perspective, the electoral college fails at engaging users by being inaccessible and by not meeting the needs of all users. Blue votes in red states and red votes in blue states alike are mostly overshadowed, as candidates have an incentive to spend time focusing on swing states. And for that same reason, voters in swing states are often inundated with political ads as election season ramps up, creating overwhelm.

Better Content Design would be a popular vote. It would eliminate a great deal of user confusion and take the emphasis off of swings states by letting all votes, regardless of origin, count equally. It would also make the entire system more accessible by making it more intuitive, which would, in theory increase engagement (voter turnout). In UX, more accessible means more engagement. We suspect the same would hold true here.

Change #2: Switch to rank choice voting.

In the United States, we currently use a first-past-the-post vote casting system, which means that the candidate with the most votes wins, and there can be only one vote per voter.

From our original list of voter complaints, first-past-the-post is problematic because:

  • It creates a lack of accessibility
  • It feels like my voice isn’t being heard / my vote doesn’t count

If we take a look at this practice from our Content Design perspective, we understand that first-past-the-post can discourage voters by narrowing the variety of options. If a voter’s politics don’t align exactly with one of the two major parties, they may feel pressure to vote for the candidate who is closer aligned with them, rather than for a potentially preferred third-party candidate.

Rank choice voting, on the other hand, would allow more freedom for both voters and candidates. Already implemented in Maine, where US voter engagement is the highest in the country, voters in this system choose candidates based on preference rather than pragmatism. If a candidate doesn’t receive a majority of the votes, then the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated, and their votes are distributed to whomever their voters chose as their second choice.

This system gives users more options, which in this case rather than overwhelming them, would allow them to feel as if they are being represented at the ballot box, an issue our research illuminates that they have.

Change #3: Put a limit on election season.

Our last suggestion for increasing engagement and decreasing frustration would be imposing a cap on the length of political campaigns.

Of the original complaints from voters that we heard, the long election cycle contributes to a couple:

  • The technology is outdated
  • The election cycle is overwhelming

In 2016, a poll found that 6 in 10 Americans were already exhausted by the election in July of that year — a full four months before the election even took place. The long cycle (1,194 days in the 2020 election cycle) burns voters out, which in turn, disconnects them from the process as a whole.

From a Content Design perspective, we know that if we overwhelm a user with too much information or try too aggressively sell something they’re not interested in (hello, annoying pop-up windows), they will become frustrated with the product and are more likely to disengage or jump ship.

Putting a limit on election season would stop candidates from declaring their campaign for any office too early, addressing voters’ concerns of feeling overwhelmed by politics by simply shortening the race. This change would also shift the focus of the news cycle away from political news and could cut down on voter frustration by limiting the number of ads that candidates could run, which are especially aggressive in swing states.

Unfortunately, unlike a website, elections are pretty hard to change.

The Content Design process — putting the user first, thinking through their problems, implementing changes that will improve their experience, and then watching the data to observe improvement (or the need for iteration) over time — offers immediate feedback. With no code, low-barrier tools like Webflow, editing a site or adding accessibility is easier than it ever has been…which sadly isn’t something we can say for politics.

We think this is a good exercise anyway, though. By lending the Content Designer’s lens to stickier, more complicated, and more fraught subjects like politics and elections, we can gain insight into what exactly is going on — and figure out what we can do about it. The power of good Content Design transcends. What can you apply it to?

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