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Information Design Matters
Dawn Danby, 8 Feb 04


Jamais recently posted about the Open Vote Foundation’s efforts to develop open source software for electronic voting. Human interaction in elections, however, is still suffering from design that - software aside - can sometimes be puzzling, or even unintelligible.

Social Design Notes points us to Design for Democracy's efforts to reconsider the entire American voting experience. Their lengthy document [pdf] illustrates reworked ballots, voter instructions, signage, and proposals for polling booths that fit the principles of universal design.

There are thousands of different designs and procedures in use out there - the Ace Project has some great international examples (at right, a ballot from Bangladesh). Information designer Edward Tufte suggests that many of them work well enough: too much innovation is not necessarily ideal. Writing about the Florida’s butterfly ballot, he writes that “[it] was apparently user tested by the local officials, was excessively original in design... Apparently the view was that this strange ballot design was going to help clarify the ballot for older people. Such an attitude is not a good place to start in designing something. As Strunk and White say about writing: No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence.”

Here in Canada I’ve generally been given a pencil and paper and sent behind a little cardboard screen. Recently they scanned my ballot with an electronic tabulator, which swallowed the paper trail (required in Canada) into a locked container below. The polls closed at 8, and all ballots were counted by 8:10.

ES&S, one of the American companies responsible for the contentious touch-screen booths, made Toronto’s M100 [pdf] machines. A representative for Toronto Elections was genuinely amazed that touch-screens were even being considered on a wide scale in the US, since one machine per voter - rather than one tabulator per voting location - would be so expensive. "Must have money to burn," he told me. Which would certainly be news.

The controversy over touch-screen technology is not news, but a recent article in Scientific American briefly outlines concepts by Rebecca Mercuri and others to develop electronic voting equipment that leaves a proper paper trail and allows voters to check their votes for accuracy:
“Electronic ballot boxes would be equipped with a glass screen and a printer. Each vote would be printed out on paper and the result dropped behind the glass screen for the voter to review before choosing to cast or void it. Such a system, [Mercuri] says, would reduce voter error and provide for a recount, if needed. Meanwhile the electronics could tabulate votes quickly, as our impatient society demands.”

This American Life also has a good interview (RealAudio) with Mercuri, detailing the amusing excuses Diebold and others have come up with about why a paper audit trail is impossible for voting machine design.

What works? How do you vote, where you are?

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Glad to see you posting again.

I strongly agree that information design matters, that we can do better, and that a paper trail is very important in a democracy (living in Chicago makes this last part all the more necessary!)

I work in the environmental field and am frustrated with the lack of compelling visual metaphors for large natural systems (like the Great Lakes). Where can I find resources (people) to help build the next generation of such images?

I fear we may be left with those who think that the quote below isn't an ironic illustration of what not to rely on:

"No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader's intelligence.”

S&W hopefully would have edited it to read:

"No one who distrusts the reader's itellegence can write decently."

Ironic no?


Posted by: David Rankin on 9 Feb 04

Visual metaphors - I guess it would depend on what you were trying to illustrate. But I'd agree that making clear images of complex systems (as opposed to modeling them) is tricky business. That aside, aerial photography - and even GIS - can tell incredible stories. What kind of visual metaphors were you thinking of, I wonder?

Posted by: Dawn Danby on 11 Feb 04



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