RE: Here's why formatting and layout can really matter:

Subject: RE: Here's why formatting and layout can really matter:
From: "Lydia Wong" <lydiaw -at- fpoint -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 9 Nov 2000 13:08:39 -0500

All political/legal ramifications aside, the ballots are a usability issue,
and there are several important lessons here for us technical writers (and
for software/hardware manufacturers). The bottom line is this is a massive
usability test that tested user input and computer hardware systems.

Here are my summary points of the lessons we all need to look at coming out
of this:

Point 1: Usability test your product and documentation in the *real life*
The sample ballots were distributed to citizens, but the sample ballot did
not exactly match what they saw when they arrived at the polling place.
Also, according to voters, the ballots, when placed in the machines, did not
have their punch holes exactly line up, thus compounding the problem of what
are generally considered poorly designed ballots.

In addition, note that some of the changes in this recount are due to the
fact that some ballots did not have their holes punched as cleanly as
others. According to officials, the recount differences can in part be
attributed to a careful review of ballots that were initially read by
machines as not punched, but when checked by a human being, were determined
to have only a partially punched hole.

Point 2: As Arlen just pointed out, build in error checking.
Those machines at the polling places should have rejected ballots that were
not cleanly punched and that were punched twice, and therefore invalid.

Point 3: Have well-trained support staff.
Reports have come in that poll staff either could not help confused voters
who asked for assistance or even refused to give voters new ballots when the
voters had made a mistake on their initial ballot. The workers were not
trained, so voters were left with no recourse (great way to get users to
abandon your product!).

Point 4: Look at your audience.
According to an interview, the woman who designed the ballots tried to do
this by making the font larger (knowing the large number of senior voters in
the county). But making the font larger made it more difficult to fit on the
ballot, so the entries were staggered in what became a confusing
arrangement, thus defeating the whole purpose. Harking back to point 1, with
some usability testing, it might have become clear that the new design
actually confused voters (seniors and others), rather than assisting them.

We've all made mistakes in our jobs and our documentation before. I really
feel for that poor woman who designed those ballots. Who could know that one
state, and perhaps even one county's ballots, might decide the presidential
election. I wouldn't want to be in her shoes!

My two cents . . .

Lydia Wong
Technical Writer
FarPoint Technologies, Inc.

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