Voting usability: my personal experience

Over the years, I've seen news reports about user difficulty with eletronic voting kiosks and read the occasional article about ballot usability. I did not really expect to be the person with the voting problem, but suprisingly, this tech-savvy gal was.

I headed to vote in a hotly contested local primary election. In Allegheny County, we use the ES&S iVotronic (view a big photo here), a rather boxy touchscreen electronic voting machine. (Full disclosure: the past two years, I was traveling over election day and used an absentee ballot. The last time I voted via machine was 2008.)

Here's what happened: 

  1. The voting helper showed me the machine and asked if I used the machine before. I had.
  2. I read the instructions on the screen. 
  3. I started to vote, and easily picked my candidates via the touchscreen. 
  4. I reviewed my choices; it said I could press the vote button.
  5. I couldn't find the vote button. An embarassing red light was going off, totally flashing in my face. 
  6. I looked some more for the button, cycling through screens. I was feeling rather sheepish.
  7. I examined the help sheet taped to the booth, panicked. It indicated a cartoonish big red button. 
  8. I looked for the big red vote button on the screen. Mortification set in. 
  9. I realized that the vote button was a physical button, not a touchscreen button. It was also the very thing that had been obnoxiously blinking all the while. 
  10. I pressed the button and walked away feeling really, really dumb. 

I felt stupid, but it was the UI's fault.

I've seen it plenty of times in user testing: a participant doesn't find what they were looking for or otherwise fails at a task and they say to me rather sheepishly, "oh, I just didn't see it" or "I guess I didn't understand how it works." But, it's not their fault. Most of the time, usability test particpants aren't the dumb ones; rather, they have good reasons for thinking something should work a certain way. When the site/product/device doesn't meet their expectations, rather than recognize the idiocy of the "thing," users self-blame or feel embarassed.     

I am a novice user of electronic voting booths.

At best, most people vote once or twice a year, but many go years between votes, showing up only for presidential elections. Essentially, you have to re-learn how to vote every time. To solve this problem, the voting booth gives a brief on-screen instruction page and the voting attendant asks if you need an overview. The actual process of voting is made to be easy---similar to a wizard interface. To top it off, my voting booth had a sheet of printed instructions, kind of like a post-it note with a password scribbled on it stuck to the monitor of a computer. Every safegaurd was taken, and the machine had help copy out the wazoo. Perhaps they should've done more user testing. 

The touchscreen/button interface is a mixed metaphor. 

My last beef: why on earth would a touchscreen have a physical button? It breaks the convention of the user interface. I went through my entire voting process touching only the screen, checking off names and then clicking the "next" and "review" buttons at the bottom of the screen. When the time came to actually cast my vote, I was not expecting to use a physical button AT THE TOP of the machine---even as it flashed in my face (weirdly, the flashing light made it nearly impossible to read the word "Vote" printed on the button). Maybe the thought was that people would feel more secure casting their vote with a non-digital action, but I suspect the button's top placement and physical nature felt odd to quite a few people in addition to me. 

The good news? At least I (successfully) voted!