Mail-In Voting Kit Redesign

Backstory

June 2nd, 2022. A day for all those in Ontario to exercise their democratic voting rights to elect our provincial premier. Like our neighbours south of the border, we take our voting pretty seriously as well. In Ontario, we’ve got the options to vote the day of, in advance polling, or through mail-in ballots.

In the last month or so, Elections Ontario predicted huge line ups due to a lack of polling workers across the province. This is in addition to worries about the persistent pandemic we’ve been facing for the last 2+ years. And so, many have opted to vote by mail. In fact, a total of 126K+ voting kits have been mailed out in this year’s election. Just for comparison, only 10K people voted by mail in the last election in 2018.

While it is our duty as citizens to vote, it is also both the federal and provincial law makers to ensure that voting is made easy for those looking to exercise their rights. The process of voting shouldn’t be frustrating for users. Instead, it should be something to be appreciated in a free country.

I had received my voting kit two weeks ago but when I opened the mail, something about it was bugging me. At first, I felt a sense of pride knowing that I was doing my duty to vote. But it was soon met with a sense of weariness. I was trying to not look at it through the lens of a UX designer but as a user, it was something I thought needed my attention. There were a few things that I found in the voting kit that was making me question the reasoning behind the design. So I decided to do a bit of reading and researching on voting practices and ballot designs.

You may asking “why are you doing this?”.

No, I wasn’t hired by any affiliating institutions to propose ballot redesign ideas (perhaps one day). I’m just inspired as a user, but also as a designer to make voting easier. I‘m not just talking about eliminating line ups easier type of act. It’s about the cognitive burden that voters have to go through in order to exercise their rights. If the goal of achieving democracy, we have to make voting efficient, effective, and enlightening.

Current Problems

ONE | Is there a way to condense the voting kit?

The voting kit currently contains of the following items: 1. Secrecy Envelope 2. Return Envelope 3. Ballot and 4. Instructions Card/Return Address Card.

I’ll start with the envelopes.

I instinctively put the Secrecy Envelope against the Return Envelope to see if it’s a feasible act without shape-shifting the Secrecy Envelope. It turns out, both envelopes were almost of the same widths so I decided to time myself trying to slide the Secrecy Envelope into the Return Envelope. 14 seconds. It might seem insignificant but that’s not without the flaps getting caught in the folds and creases. The act of stuffing an envelope into another has already caused about 14 seconds of user frustration and this is only the simplest step of all.

In the case of the ballot and instruction cards, they’re both essential pieces of the voting kit so I wouldn’t necessary attempt to eliminate either. However, I’ll discuss the contents of both.

TWO | Are the copy simple to understand?

Since Canada’s official languages include both French and English, it’s crucial to have both sets of languages in all documents. When I was looking through the instructions card and the ballot, they’re both unmistakably present. But the copy layout bothered me. In the instructions card, the English and French versions kept flipping between aligning side-by-side to above and under and then back to side-by-side. Not only does it take time for users to figure out which layout to follow while trying to read in a logical fashion, but it’s just frustrating to spend extra mental energy and time when the process is supposed to be “easy”.

I think there’s a potential to reduce the cognitive load for users and in turn, reduce the potential time wasted and user frustration.

THREE | Are important information conveyed with the same importance?

This is very important. In the 2008 U.S. Senate contest, 3900 absentee ballots were thrown out for the Minnesota race because they required a signature on the envelopes but it wasn’t blatantly clear. In this voting kit, I noticed that the instructions card had things printed on both sides. On one side, there’s the instructions but also an Elector Confirmation Card at the very bottom with a barely visible tear mark to be detached from the card and mailed in. This is where you’re supposed to include your signature to validate your status as an elector.

On the other side of the card is the printed mailing address for the elections office. The Elector Confirmation Card is an integral piece to ensure that the vote is validated and that the office receives it accordingly. But why is the tear mark so inconspicuous? Why is there no other prompt for users to realize to tear it off and include it in the mail?

I can only presume that more than a handful of votes might get discounted because users realized they made a mistake after they’ve sealed the package without the Elector Confirmation Card in there.

Secrecy Envelope that has almost the same width as its Return Envelope; making it difficult for users to complete the voting process.

Secrecy Envelope that has almost the same width as its Return Envelope; making it difficult for users to complete the voting process.

Instructions card with zig zag English to French design layout in addition to an inconspicuous tear mark for the Elector Confirmation Card; making it hard for users to recognize its importance.

Instructions card with zig-zag English to French design layout in addition to an inconspicuous tear mark for the Elector Confirmation Card; making it hard for users to recognize its importance.

Ballot Research

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First, I need to identify the who — the users who are eligible to participate in the provincial election. Users must meet all three simple requirements:

  1. Must be 18 or 18+ on election day;

  2. A Canadian citizen;

  3. An Ontario resident (with ID as proof of residency)

 

As mentioned in the previous post, users can vote on the day of, in advance polling, or through mail-in voting. All eligible voters can request a mail-in voting kit. In that sense, our users can include every Canadian living in Ontario who is 18 or above and therefore, the mail-in voting kit must adhere to a product design that caters to our users.

Once I’ve identified our users, I want to address what Elections Ontario is looking to achieve through its product (the mail-in voting kit). Elections Ontario is a non-partisan office of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and its members work to ensure a fair, impartial, and effective electoral process. Their mission is “to make voting easy”, aligning their values with being integral, accessible, accountable, innovative, efficient, and respectful.

Armed with the understanding of Elections Ontario’s mission statement and who their potential users are, I want to know and leverage existing resources and redesign data to refine mail-in voting kit. I want to understand what redesign improvements have been made to combat an unfair, partial, and ineffective voting processes.

I looked to the Center for Civic Design for design references and information. Here are some of the guidelines they’ve listed:

  1. Employ plain language and designs especially in the voting instructions;

  2. Include instructions where they are most needed;

  3. Simplify the voting kit by eliminating unnecessary contents;

  4. Combat the rejections of ballots due to missing information or material;

  5. Conduct usability testing with voters, team members, print/mail vendors, and institutions;

  6. Make it easy visually for voters to sign in the right place in addition to accessibility needs;

  7. Distinguish envelopes according to its purpose by colour and by texture;

  8. Use plain language and designs for the Elector Confirmation Card to make it easier to read;

  9. Use a checklist system to instruct, to chunk multi-step tasks, and to ensure ease;

  10. Pair visual images along with instructions accordingly to convey information more effectively;

  11. Stay consistent with design, information, and copywrite

 

With this set of guidelines as a way to direct my redesign purpose, I wanted to address the usability concerns I encountered in my previous post. I’ve included a few picture of these concerns. To counter the width compatibility of the secrecy and return envelopes, Elections Ontario can start working with printing/mailing vendors in voting kits that are easier to use.

The instructions card can also benefit from a simplified and consistent approach to its language, layout, and design to reduce the users’ cognitive load. The corresponding English and French content layout transitions from side-by-side to above and under and back to side-by-side design. There is a potential to keep the design consistent.

A tear mark is also barely visible for voters to detach the Elector Confirmation Card to be included in the final kit which could potentially deem the returned package as inadequate to be counted. This does not adhere to Elections Ontario’s mission to make voting “easy”.

Revised Elections Ontario instructions card that have components that make it easier for voters to follow along (with less cognitive load) and to understand what important information is required.

Revised Elections Ontario instructions card that have components that make it easier for voters to follow along (with less cognitive load) and to understand what important information is required.

I know that this redesign might only be the starting point for an overhaul on the mail-in voting kit design. It might not even be a problem for others. It might be possible that others have already started proposing better solutions than that I have done with the instructions card. Ultimately, I hope this redesign idea has sparked ideas for Elections Ontario to adhere to its promise to make voting easy for voters.

Proposed Redesign Solution

Before I start revealing what I have come up with, I just want to preface it by saying that my redesign is not going to be the ultimate solution. Given the time and resources I have, this is the best idea based on research. To truly gauge usability, we have to conduct user research and tests. But I hope this is a conduit for others to tackle civic design problems and to keep user experience top of mind beyond the digital scope.

So what did I come up with?

To be frank, there are several components within the voting kit that could be more user-friendly. Some of my proposed changes include the following:

  1. Working with printing vendors to make the return envelope more compatible for users to insert into the secrecy envelope

  2. Conduct testing on redesign proposals to gauge usability

  3. Use consistent language, design, and layout throughout the kit

  4. Provide more accessible designs to differentiate components (although Elections Ontario has included several accessible options which is amazing to see)

 

I find that the main issue lies with the instructions card. It’s a powerful tool to ensure that voters understand and complete all the necessary steps within the process. It’s also where voters receive guidance on how to use the product since the process isn’t naturally intuitive especially for first-timers. The instructions card’s main purpose is to ensure that no voter’s mail-in ballot gets disqualified because of bad copywrite or design. The redesign has to meet the needs of Elections Ontario and its users to make voting easy.

Here are what I’ve come up with:

  1. Separate the English and French versions into different columns to make it easier for users to follow along

  2. Include check boxes for each step so users can check each step once it’s completed

  3. Emphasize important information whether it’s an item or an action through bold text or visual cues

  4. Include the visual instructions at the end of the textual instructions; this is to allow users to follow through text rather than visual for more comprehensive details

  5. Include a dotted line in which users can see where to detach the Elector Confirmation Card

  6. Follow consistent design with the “X” logo on the two card components as a way to convey to voters that these are two separate cards with two separate purposes

  7. Add Elections Ontario colour, for emphasis, to the lines that require voters’ signage and dating