Redesigning election forms for overseas citizens (FPCA and FWAB)
It seems fitting as we approach Independence Day that I share a bit about what Oxide has been up to recently in the world of election-related design. In various ways over the last couple of years, we’ve had the honor of working with the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense).
Our work has centered around an ongoing improvement of the design and usability of the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA), and the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot (FWAB). (Did I mention the DOD was involved? Steel yourself for the acronyms.) These are the two primary documents used by UOCAVA (U.S. citizens living abroad or stationed overseas in the military) to register and vote from wherever they are around the globe.
In 2011, Oxide was subcontracted by Fors Marsh Group to usability test (in partnership with Dana Chisnell and UsabilityWorks) and redesign the FPCA and FWAB. It’s safe to say the forms had not been critically reviewed in a long time (perhaps ever), and were some of the worst examples of confusing, difficult-to-use government forms.
Our exploratory, formative study evaluated the usability of the FPCA and FWAB with 28 participants. The objective was to learn where voters had questions and made mistakes using the forms, and why. Knowing this, we’d have data to inform decisions made in redesigning the forms. The goal: evidence-based design recommendations to revise the forms.
Using observations and insights from the first round of sessions, Oxide redesigned the FPCA and the Declaration section of the FWAB. Then, in a second round of study, we observed participants using the forms, which validated many of the design decisions made in the revisions. It also generated further evidence on which to base final recommendations for improvements to instructions, structure, and flow of the forms. (If you’re interested in learning more, I invite you to read our Final Report to FVAP.)
As you might expect, some but not all of our recommendations were implemented. The result was disappointing because it could have been much better, but was still a giant leap forward for the forms.
While the new forms were a vast improvement, there were still some issues to be tackled. A decision was made at FVAP to ignore our usability-tested recommendations on the instructions and plain language in parts of the form, resulting in a backlash from some overseas citizens regarding the confusing choices they were now presented with about whether or not they intend to return to the United States (an important distinction that can have serious income tax repercussions).
Fast forward to 2013, and new leadership at FVAP is looking to correct the language and improve the forms. They posted a revised version of the forms online, allowing for a 30-day public comment period. Given a new opportunity to make the forms even better, we teamed up again with Dana Chisnell (in her role at the helm of CivicDesigning.org), called on the expertise of AIGA Design for Democracy (DFD), and found a great new partner in the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF, a nonprofit dedicated to helping overseas American citizens and uniformed services voters register and vote faster, more easily, and more accurately).
Oxide, DFD, OVF, and CivicDesigning.org combined our previous recommendations with new information we’ve gained along the way, and submitted a new version of the FPCA for consideration by FVAP. The new redesign implements the design elements ignored from our original suggestions, but also goes an extra step to improve the clarity of the instructions through the use of plain language. A notable example of this kind of edit is changing the largest headline on the form from the cryptic “Federal Post Card Application (FPCA)” to “Voter registration and absentee ballot request” so voters know explicitly what the form is for.
To dig deeper on the issue, you can read the officially submitted comments of Oxide/DFD, CivicDesigning.org, and OVF. (You can also download a high-res PDF of both sides of our recommended FPCA redesign.) We’re hoping that the FVAP seriously considers our suggested redesign. If anyone deserves the right to register and vote as easily and clearly as possible, it’s most certainly the people fighting to protect our right to that vote.