“I chose the ‘straight ticket’ option for the Democratic Party on the first screen,” a Texas resident voting in the 2018 midterm elections recently tweeted. “Once I toggled through the 16+ page ballot and reached the final screen to review my choices, I saw that my vote for Beto O’Rourke had been changed to a vote for Ted Cruz.”
She wasn’t alone. Last week, there were quite a few voters in Texas – including Sophic’s hometown of Houston – claiming that the Hart eSlate machines were changing their votes in hotly contested races like the Senate race between O’Rourke and Cruz. In other cases, voters reported that the machines completely removed any selection for U.S. Senate. The office of Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos blamed voters, using the infamous term “user error”:
“The Hart eSlate machines are not malfunctioning, the problems being reported are a result of user error — usually voters hitting a button or using the selection wheel before the screen is finished rendering,” said Sam Taylor, spokesman for the office.
User error has become quite a catch phrase.
Here we go… Good old “user error” again. Technology fails, and instead of understanding what causes humans to make errors and fixing what’s wrong with the technology, we’re told things like: “Make sure to confirm that your summary page accurately reflects your choices BEFORE casting your ballot!” Yes, this is what Pablos’ office posted in polling stations across Texas as a fix. Apparently, it is now the user’s responsibility to make sure that the technology works correctly. Truth be told, the user is the last link in the chain of events to fail, and the errors are usually precipitated by multiple failures whether procedural or technological.
The machine’s maker, Hart Intercivic, accepted no responsibility for design issues as they released a statement saying they “proudly stand behind our voting systems and our customers.” Then they praised election officials. Of course, they praised officials! Officials passed the buck to the users. In doing so, they absolved Hart Intercivic of any reason to hold themselves accountable, and the company will continue to make and sell machines with confusing user interfaces and design flaws as a result.
What happened is this: Last week, when voters selected the straight ticket option on the eSlate machines, they expected that it would fill in all votes for the one party they were voting for. However, the user interface was incredibly confusing. When they pressed a button while the page was loading, a bug occurred and immediately switched the top race on the ballot to the other party. Some people noticed the design flaw and reported it, but there’s really no way to know how many people didn’t notice. There’s no way to tell how many people voted for someone they didn’t want in office. And we wonder why the public’s confidence in the election process is at an all-time low.
When there’s an estimated 5 million voters across 82 counties in Texas counting on eSlate machine technology to vote, this is not acceptable. This not user error, but we blame the user because that’s the easiest solution. Fixing real problems is difficult and points to many potential issues that companies may not want the public or clients to be aware of regarding their products or services. And, sadly, this is not anything new. This isn’t the state’s (or the country’s) first issue with voting machines. In fact, Texas experienced issues with eSlate machines during the 2016 election. The same issue of the candidates being deselected was occurring when voters tried to select a presidential candidate (the first race on the ballot). This year, the Senate race is the first one on the ballot. To fix the issue back then, the office placed signage around polling stations and held training seminars for election administrators. Again, they put the responsibility of bad design back on the users. They should know that training, procedures, labels, signage and other such things will never overcome a poor design.
In 2017, two Rice University researchers took an in-depth look at the usability of eSlate machines, citing a 2008 study of 1500 voters that ranked them the lowest out of 6 machines for ease of use. “There is evidence, both anecdotal and experimental suggesting that the eSlate is not particularly usable,” they wrote. “Counties are already spending a great deal of money on the eSlate and using the systems in elections despite potential usability issues that could lead to longer voter times… and mistakes made by voters while making selections on ballots.”
If we look back at history, we’ll see that user error has been blamed time and time again when it’s really the fault of bad design. News headlines often scream that user error is the cause of design fails that have a massive impact on public safety like data breaches, factory injuries, aviation accidents, and so on. But to give us credit, we humans aren’t dumb. It actually takes a lot for us to make unrecoverable mistakes. In fact, when it comes to data breaches, for example, criminals bet on the fact that there will be design flaws in the technology. They exploit issues with computers to initiate user error! Given this fact, why can’t we just acknowledge once and for all that efforts need to be made from the beginning of the design process to reduce user error?
If there was ever the perfect example of failed design and bad user experience, eSlate machines are it. Until they are designed with human factors in mind, we can expect to see more stories in the news like this, more angry voters, and a public that is fed up with being blamed for bad design.
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