In Fall of 2020, my team partnered with the Michigan Department of State to design and implement solutions to improve access to accurate voting information and encourage voter turnout among returning citizens, one of Michigan’s most vulnerable and underrepresented populations. We were given just over a month to deliver this solution, from 9/3 to 10/17. From 10/18 to 11/16, the team engaged in usability evaluation to produce a sustainability report.
I managed a team of three and ensured we delivered high-quality work on a tight schedule.
In conjunction with the Office of University Outreach, a report by the UM-Flint Geographic Information Systems Center analyzed voting data across the state and mapped the top 100 precincts with the lowest voter turnout (Rosencrants, 2019). The report found that 40% of these precincts were in Detroit, 20% were in Flint, and the remaining 40% were scattered across the rest of the state.
We conducted background research to triangulate a better understanding of the returning citizen community, their patterns of technology use, and strategies to improve voter registration and turnout. We learned that returning citizens tend not to use social media and rely heavily on friends and family to help them use or make decisions regarding digital technology (Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, Toyama, & Dillahunt, 2018).
Given the timeline and other constraints of the project, we employed a design sprint process that allowed us to incorporate new information and engage in rapid prototyping for the Michigan Department of State stakeholders to review and provide feedback on how to correct and converge on an ideal solution.
The team began this iterative process informed by a study that showed that simple postcards from the Department of State, stamped as official election mail, could improve voter registration by 1% and turnout by 0.9% (Bryant et al., 2020). The team made mockups of postcards.
However, feedback from Michigan Department of State stakeholders revealed that a postcard was already in development, and the team needed to brainstorm new ideas. The team conducted a total of seven semi-structured interviews with former returning citizens, activists, and leaders of community organizations that work directly with the returning citizen community. The team supplemented this data with participant observation by attending five virtual listening sessions hosted in districts with an above-average percentage of communities of interest, including returning citizens, with precincts identified in the UM-Flint study to have historically low voter turnout.
- The project’s goal was to have an impact on the November election, which demanded a much shorter design cycle and iterative period.
- Additionally, returning citizens are faced with stigmatization and disenfranchisement that creates a feedback loop, putting them at greater risk of reincarceration. As a result, this is a particularly difficult community to access.
- Most returning citizens are not using social media, and in many cases, they are leery of contact with government officials.
Synthesizing stakeholder interest, deliverable deadlines, and significant barriers to community access, the team converged on an indirect approach to disseminating voting information through the community partners that work directly with returning citizens. The team developed a social media toolkit through Google Sites to make it as simple as possible for community partners to select and share relevant videos and graphics to a broader audience that could communicate accurate voting information to the returning citizens in their lives. To make it easier for community partners to select and share appropriate graphics, the team implemented a calendar with key dates/deadlines and recommendations on what to use from the toolkit to share on social media for that given day.
Costs & Benefits
Social media has become a pervasive presence in modern society. According to Pew Research Center, social media use is on the rise across all age groups, with over ¾ of U.S. adults using at least one social media site as of 2018. Most Americans report getting their news from social media (Suciu, 2019). By creating a social media toolkit, our team was able to tap into the immense potential of social media to amplify the reach of important voting information. The digital format of the content made it easy to access and share, while the toolkit provided interested parties with graphics they could share to promote our brand and information.
Social media also allowed us to reach more people with less effort. Sharing posts on social media is free, and getting community partners to share our posts on their social media is also free. However, an associated cost to this measure is that we needed to offer content that our partners wanted to share and that their followers wanted to engage with.
Maintenance and Sustainability
The toolkit we developed has already been implemented and can be archived and used as a model for future toolkits in election cycles. We used Google Sites because it provides tools to quickly and easily design and publish full websites at no cost. We recommend using Google Sites or building an official page on the Michigan.gov server for future versions.
To reduce costs and improve the user experience, we suggest a continuing partnership with the University of Michigan School of Information. The school offers clients a number of opportunities to engage with world-class user experience research and design consultants that are ideal for continued improvement and innovative solutions. Our team has provided the heuristics we used and usability benchmarks across the common metrics of task success, ease of use, and usability. Future versions of the site can be tested by teams similar to ours and compared to the benchmarks to measure improvements.
Based on insights uncovered from usability testing, we can provide recommendations for future work that can largely be completed for free through the various client-based courses.
Voter Resource Center: To optimize information architecture and reduce cognitive overload, we recommend more extensive testing and evaluation. Further research centered around heuristic evaluations with a focus on improving accessibility, card sorting exercises to better understand users’ mental models related to information organization, and subsequent usability testing to track and measure improvements to the interface by comparing them to the benchmarks set in our testing.
Partners in Democracy: We recommend implementing a browser-based form where users can upload materials without having to copy an email and leave the site to sign up. Similarly, for misinformation reporting, we suggest making the reporting process easier by implementing a browser-based form to replace having to copy an email address and leave the site to report misinformation.
Social Media Toolkit: To improve the user experience, we suggest simplifying the toolkit with an improved calendar interaction. Instead of making the user search for the recommended graphic, we recommend linking to it from the calendar. Additionally, incorporating social media sharing buttons would make it easier for users to share our graphics without having to save them to their devices.
Bryant, L.A., Hanmer, M.J., Safarpour, A.C. et al. The Power of the State: How Postcards from the State Increased Registration and Turnout in Pennsylvania. Polit Behav (2020).
Ogbonnaya-Ogburu, I. F., Toyama, K., & Dillahunt, T. (2018). Returning Citizens’ Job Search and Technology Use: Preliminary Findings. CSCW (pp. 365-368). Jersey City, NJ: ACM.
Rosencrants, T. (2019). State of Michigan Low Voter Turnout Precincts Basic Demographics. Flint, MI: U-M Flint Office of University Outreach.
Suciu, P. (2019, 10 11). More Americans Are Getting Their News From Social Media. Retrieved from Forbes: https://bit.ly/3lUedgR
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