At Oxide, we use the term “election design” to describe design that solves issues across the full range of the voting experience. It’s not just ballot design; it’s things like wayfinding and informational signage at polling places, data visualization of election results, and user interfaces for election officials’ administrative software.

Over the past year, we’ve had the pleasure of working with our long-time civic design partners Center for Civic Design (CCD) on a voter information project. Through a grant from the Future of California Elections initiative, we partnered with the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund (LWVCEF) to design a set of best practices for the design of printed voter information guides.

A sampling of existing California voter information guidesA sampling of existing California voter information guides

The scenario

In California, each county is legally required to send a voter information guide to each registered voter. (The state sends a separate guide to each voter as well.) The guides contain a sample ballot for the upcoming election, and information on the candidates and measures that will be on the ballot, as well as details on how and where to vote. Currently, the guides have no consistency, and minimal guidelines regarding content or layout. They can be very off-putting to voters through their size and complexity.

CCD and Oxide were brought in to make the guides as straightforward, effective, and usable as possible. The overall goal is to make the information as clear and concise as it can be, so that voters become more comfortable with the process, and we increase voter engagement and participation.

Dana Chisnell of the Center for Civic Design conducts a usability session with a potential voterDana Chisnell of the Center for Civic Design conducts a usability session with a potential voter

The process

CCD began the overall process by gathering stakeholder input. They worked with state and county election officials, community advocacy and good government groups, interviewing 25 people to get their input on the questions voters ask, and how they answer them.

After that, they conducted research with voters and non-voters from across the state of California. They conducted two sets of interviews with over 50 people, collecting their preferences for what types of information they wanted, and what channels and formats worked best for them.

Covers of the three voter information guide prototypes used in the usability testing sessionsCovers of the three voter information guide prototypes used in the usability testing sessions

Using CCD’s initial findings, Oxide designed a prototype voter guide. We based each section of content off of the pages from various existing guides that the interviewees had responded to most favorably.

We used the prototype guide as the basis for 45 usability testing sessions, in which we asked people to find answers to their questions about elections and talk to us about the experience of using the guide. Participants included new citizens, people with low literacy, people with disabilities, and people who spoke Spanish and Chinese.

Throughout the usability testing, we made iterative design changes to the prototype based on feedback from the participants. Sometimes it seemed that a minor refinement might solve the problem, other times we felt a more wholesale rework of a particular page was necessary. After the sessions were all complete, we compiled all of the input and findings into a set of design recommendations for California election officials, as well as a best practices voter information guide prototype.

2015 FOCE Conference attendees learning about the voter information guide prototypes2015 FOCE Conference attendees learning about the voter information guide prototypes

The outcomes

The LWVCEF collected all of the findings into a best practices manual, which is now available online. CCD also produced a great report containing methodology, findings, and recommendations. It provides a lot of valuable details about the project and our process.

I traveled to Sacramento, CA in February to present our final findings at the Future of California Elections 2015 Conference. For election officials and other interested parties, we also recorded a set of webinars covering the salient points of the best practices. (If you want to skip straight to the part where you listen to me talk design over a set of presentation slides, here’s a shortcut.)

Cover of the final voter information guide prototype designed by Oxide Design Co.Cover of the final voter information guide prototype designed by Oxide Design Co.

The next steps

I’ll travel back to California this week to attend the 2015 CACEO (California Association of Clerks and Election Officials) Annual Conference to further educate election officials on how to implement the best practices.

Also: I’m very excited to share that we’ve just been informed that Oxide and CCD have been selected to receive a second FOCE grant to continue our work. We’ll partner with three specific counties in California to apply the best practices to their voter information guides, conduct usability tests, and continue design iteration. We’ll use the refined best practices to design voter information guides for the counties, to be piloted in the June 2016 primary election.