Electronic Voting Software

I used a Diebold terminal to vote in yesterday's election. All of the security issues aside (many of which have been covered elsewhere), I could not help but to critique their software as I was casting my ballot. I found that the system does some things well, but has a long way to go.

One of Alan Cooper's fundamental rules of user interaction design is that computerizing a real world metaphor makes it worse. You loose some of the features of the real world, and you take on none of the benefits of computerization. Case in point, the ballot presented on the Diebold machine was made to look exactly like a paper ballot. It had boxes for the offices organized in three columns. Candidates' names were listed within the box. The boxes flowed down one column and jumped to the top of the next.

This ballot design was originally created for the mechanical punch system that electronic voting replaces. Columns work well in that system because that allows pages to open down the center and guide your stylus to a punch hole.

But columns do not work as well on a computer screen. The resolution of a display is much lower than that of paper, so text is naturally harder to read. To compensate, the voting terminal used a very large font. This caused text that would easily fit on a column of a paper ballot to sit uncomfortably within the similarly sized column of the on-screen ballot.

On the confirmation screen, the same layout was presented in a scrollable view. Because the flow was top-to-bottom then left-to-right, I found myself scrolling through the first column, then jumping back to the top to scroll the second column. Scrolling is bad enough with a mouse, but dragging your finger down a touch screen is terribly uncomfortable.

A better metaphor for a computer screen is to take the entire width. Then logically group the offices so that an entire group fits on one page. Put tabs across the top of the screen to let you jump to any group, and put indicators on the tabs that are incomplete. There are advantages to columns on a paper ballot, but those advantages do not translate to the computer screen. I know that a committee determines the layout of the ballot, and that they have many legal and political constraints in which to work, but I didn't see any allowance given to the medium.

On the plus side, the check boxes had good affordance, meaning that it was obvious that you could tap them. They looked like they wanted to be selected, and they gave satisfying visual feedback when activated. A punch hole on a paper ballot is much smaller, although equally satisfying when pierced.

Eventually, all voting will be electronic. It's just going to take us some time to learn what paper metaphors to leave behind as we move to the digital medium.

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