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The Iowa Caucus and the UX: A Cautionary Tale

Iowa Caucus App UX
By Aline Lin   |   February 7, 2020

By now, the story of the infamous app used to tally the votes for the Iowa Caucus 2020 is well known.

While there was a coding flaw, the downfall was also tied to the user experience. The audience, which varied widely in age and technical abilities, couldn’t easily log in, navigate the app, or figure out how to submit their votes. Overlooking the user experience not only resulted in confusion, anger, and frustration, but it also contributed to festering doubts about the integrity and security of the election process.


Here are just some excerpts that made the news…

“Anecdotally, a few of the people I do know who used the app successfully were younger people. But I do know some young people that also had troubles, just so many layers.”
–Elesha Gayman, the Scott County Democratic chair

“The state party said at the time that nearly all of the calls were related to user-error problems, such as precincts in areas with bad cell phone service that were having difficulty downloading or logging into the app, or others simply asking about the app’s functionality.”
–NYTimes

“The user experience made the app difficult to use, particularly because it required users to first download a separate app that developers often use to test new apps. That proved a high barrier for many Caucus chairs.”
–NBC News

“But multiple Iowa Democratic county chairs said they had struggled to use the app and were experiencing hold delays of up to an hour when calling into a phone hotline the party has used for decades.”
–NYTimes


From a UX design perspective, this debacle begs the following questions:

    • Did they test with the target audience?
    • Did they test it in the context of the real environment?
    • Did they conduct task-based usability testing?
    • Did they work out the user flow and different scenarios?
    • Did they employ “design thinking” when designing the app?

How could this scenario have been avoided?

The experts reviewing the app from a technical viewpoint have begun to weigh in on the many ways this process could have had a different outcome. I can only speculate on what steps were or were not taken when considering the usability of the app, but I am certain that a significant number of issues could have been avoided. As is common practice, the app was tested for bugs using various platforms. But that’s not the only testing critical to a positive user experience: applying basic best practices and principles in usability, as well as testing with the target audience, would have led to very different headlines on Monday morning.

10 General Principles of User Interface Design

  1. Visibility of system status
    Users should always understand what is going on.

  2. Match between system and the real world
    The system should use terms and concepts that are easily understood by the target audience.

  3. User control and freedom
    Give users the ability to easily recover from mistakes.

  4. Consistency and standards
    Keeping things consistent and following commonly acknowledged conventions makes it easier for users.

  5. Error prevention
    Design to avoid errors in the first place.

  6. Recognition rather than recall
    Make it easy for users to complete their tasks without having to memorize too much.

  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
    Accommodate the needs of different users.

  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
    Keep it simple and clean.

  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
    Write precise error messages in plain language.

  10. Help and documentation
    Provide easy ways to find help.

If each of these principles had been addressed during the design and development process and validated with usability testing, the Iowa Caucus would be old news. Instead, we’re still talking about it.

Even Gerard Niemira, the CEO of Shadow, the company that developed the now-infamous app, observed issues:

“We saw a lot of people entering their precinct ID instead of their PIN in the PIN spot. There were some issues with not knowing where to put what credential…”

Niemira goes on to say that while it was confusing to sign in with three different six-digit numbers, it was necessary for optimal security. What he misses here is that this is a UI/UX issue, not a user-error issue, and it doesn’t have to be confusing. This is where experienced creative designers with a solid understanding of usability can resolve the issue.

As you can see, the risks of not conducting iterative usability testing can have disastrous results on multiple levels. Being proactive about validating the user experience before launch is an investment that’s never a waste, especially when it comes to mission-critical applications and building trust.


If you’d like to learn more about how usability testing can mitigate risks, contact us.