I had the chance to run a political campaign for a friend in the last civic election in Edmonton. A terrific experience, and full of surprises. But how could a computer guy possibly be qualified to run a campaign? If you’ve never been involved in one, or are interested, here’s the parallel: you need to learn quickly, operate in a stressful, high energy environment with a limited budget, restrictive definition of success, and a firm deadline. Sound like a software project? Sure does to me. But one of the parallels from my work life surprised me even more, and was essential to our strategy.
One of the great themes that has emerged over the last few years in our industry is the “user experience” focus. It’s hard to believe that user experience hasn’t always been a core focus of system development, given the only reason that systems exist is to serve people. But the explicit emphasis on User Experience as a discipline has helped the industry and our company immeasurably. It also helped our campaign.
Here’s a quick overview of how user experience thinking can help you engage people at the highest level in your systems:
And here’s the parallel in political campaigns:
Big difference eh? Here’s a bit more detail:
Generating awareness amongst voters can be challenging. We estimated that about 40% of the folks in our Ward would vote, and many would not be interested. In order to grab the attention of as many people as possible, a multi-faceted approach is required, and all campaign teams are actively trying to get their message out. But this also leads to noise for the voter, and can be a source of frustration and tax the resources of the campaign team. We employed mail-outs, phone calls, the web & social media sites & tools, door-knocking, a media & key influencer strategy for publishing and word-of-mouth, and of course the good ol campaign sign.
Our initial goal with our signs was to get a high level of initial attention. There is a specific date that all candidates are allowed to place signs on public property for a municipal election – it is on the Monday of the September long weekend - about 4 weeks before Election Day. We were one of two that pushed hard on the first night, and on the Tuesday morning drive to work, we were everywhere in the Ward. If you drove to work on Tuesday morning, you were certainly aware there was an election coming, and who our candidate was.
Awareness is a key first step to a win, but for all the effort that is spent there, it is still passive from a user perspective. Like-ability is essential if we are going to build rapport. Both with our software systems, and our candidates. If we want voters to take a specific action, we need to ensure they perceive that we can get the job done. We must provide swift answers to questions and solve problems as quickly as possible. And foster trust and faith in the process. To do so, we have to connect with the right issues, and maintain a proper tone with all of our campaign materials. We need to ensure that seemingly smaller things like campaign colors reflect well on the candidate, and that our media design is both attractively laid out and informative. We also need to ensure we are addressing the right issues with our platform. Social media played a key role here for us as well as our candidate was both well-informed and light-hearted, and could demonstrate this to key influencers and voters alike.
Still applying our user experience model, Consideration maps perfectly to the next step in securing an “x” on the ballot beside your candidate’s name. A great deal of effort is spent here by all participating as the campaign heats up, and campaign machines move into full swing. Like all, we strive to be top-of-mind, and using the tools & techniques identified above, become the primary choice. We need to present the issues in a way that demonstrates both careful consideration and principled leadership, and generate broad appeal. But in order to inspire and inform, you need to do so in a way that embraces the spirit of the times. There are many tools and technologies available now that haven’t been available very long, and a good understanding of them can really help. But the competition for a voter’s time has also escalated in the modern age, and sometimes it’s hard for people to separate the signal from the noise. Indeed the signal for some can be just noise to many.
To ensure we would get proper consideration and inspire and inform the people in our Ward, we connected all of the tools we used for awareness to push people to our website and campaign blog, as well as our twitter feed and facebook site. The website and twitter/facebook addresses were on all materials and referenced in our phone calls as well. The team worked hard to display a thoughtful platform as well as a blog that addressed many current issues as they came up during the campaign. We have full control over our website to get our message across, and can use this medium to inspire and inform the voter. At this stage, we are getting down to addressing that smaller percentage of the population that will be voting, as each person doing research and considering candidates has a higher likelihood of voting. Making regular website posts with opinions and platform statements is essential to staying aligned with voters needs and answers to the questions they have as the campaign marches to election day.
Adoption is the Holy Grail of elections. There is a large effort put into what is called “Get Out the Vote” or “GOTV” in campaigns. This is the final push to connect with every single constituent and use every tool you have available to get people to the polls, and select your candidates name on the ballot box. At work, we find that if the software does the job, it will be used. This final stage is akin to the final competition between software solutions that have been vying for customer attention. The bids are in and the solutions have been presented. The only thing left to do is select the solution that you feel is best for you. From an effort standpoint, the election has been largely decided by this point. The final result is out of our hands. A win demonstrates that we have answered all of the right questions better than our competitors. And perhaps introduced some as well. Also, that we have solved all of the right problems and displayed that we are attentive to our user’s needs.
Here’s another interesting parallel. Some software projects I have seen have focused narrowly on the final call for action, and just assumed that users would adopt the system. They jumped from awareness straight to adoption. From a user experience perspective, the development teams forgot some or all of the steps in between that help ensure high adoption rates. Project sponsors sometimes assume that users will just use their online service because of the value it is intended to provide, and have not thought about the best way to deliver that value to their intended audience, or had one or more blind spots cause significant problems. For internal systems in some organizations, because a system may be only system available, it is easy to assume it will be widely and perfectly adopted because it is the only choice available. These system implementations may see high visits, but they end up seeing lower user engagement because the stage for the desired interaction has not been appropriately set. Not all users embrace the system, and they look for workarounds. This in turn leads to a lower return on system investment, and users also face a lower return on experience. Nobody likes using a system that doesn’t satisfy their requirements in a graceful way. This UX lesson helped us a lot in the campaign. We needed to build bridges of engagement at each level to help voters arrive at the conclusion to vote for us, and present compelling reasons for them to continually re-engage with the campaign.
One of the hats I wear in my life says ‘entrepreneur’. And one of the ways I have succeeded as an entrepreneur is by taking the lessons I have learned in one world and applying them to another in order to create new value.
I was surprised how closely some of the tools and principles we employ at iomer for designing and developing a software system applied to running a campaign. But perhaps they are actually universal: a multi-disciplinary team, a purpose and belief, a well-defined goal, and a process for engaging people to that final call to action is a surefire way to succeed at all things in life. Following the process took a lot of time and effort, but that final moment when the results were announced was worth it all!