!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Ballot Usability

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Ballot Usability

The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) has had a "Design for Democracy" initiative underway since 1998 that aims to use "all the tools of design to increase civic participation by making interactions between the U.S. government and its citizens more understandable, efficient and trustworthy."

In June of last year, the Design for Democracy team delivered a detailed report to the US Election Assistance Commission on how ballots and other polling place materials can be improved. This report, Effective Designs for the Administration of Federal Elections, includes guidelines that can help local jurisdictions "benefit from information and interaction design principles in order to make voting easier and more comprehensible for all citizens."

I looked at Section 3 (pdf), dealing with optical scan ballots, which are the type used in my state of Massachusetts. This section covers:
  • Planning — Guidance on "how to incorporate resources into your ballot development and production process; in what areas those resources may be of assistance; and when those activities should occur." The resources in question include experts in simple language, information design, usability, translation, and cultural considerations.

  • Design — Best practices for both one-language and two-language ballots.

  • Samples — Illustrations of how the best practices would apply to actual ballots.
The project's specific recommendations for ballot usabiity were validated in
54 usability evaluations with voters in seven States using prototype samples in interview settings. In-context voting feedback revealed how users actually thought and behaved while interacting with evaluation materials.
The best practices derived from the team's research include:
  • Emphasize voter needs over administrative and vendor requirements.

  • Use simple language for all content.

  • Use one language per ballot. If this is not feasible, display no more than two languages simultaneously.

  • For readability, use upper- and lowercase sans serif type, left-aligned. Minimize the number of fonts used. Set at a minimum of 12 points all ballot content voters will read.

  • Use color functionally and consistently. Color can draw the reader’s attention and emphasize important information. The use of color cannot be the sole means of conveying information or making distinctions. Another noncolor mode must complement color use, such as contrast, icon, text style, etc.

  • When clarifying instructions and processes, use accurate diagrams to describe voting technology and equipment.

  • Use instructional icons only. Universally recognized icons such as arrows are acceptable and encouraged.
AIGA Chicago president Marcia Lausen led the Design for Democracy team that redesigned election materials for Cook County IL and for the state of Oregon. She has now published Design for Democracy: Ballot + Election Design (University of Chicago Press, 2007) discussing usability principles that apply to election materials and recounting what can be learned from the Cook County and Oregon examples.