Young Americans vote at rates consistently and significantly lower than other age groups. Whereas 38 percent of people ages 18-24 voted in the 2012 presidential election, other segments surpassed them by at least 10 percentage points, and preliminary turnout estimates from the 2016 election suggest a continuation of this trend. Despite their low engagement, young, first-time voters remain an increasingly crucial demographic to the United States' political future. Given that there are 10.7 million more eligible voters in 2016 compared to 2012, this segment of the electorate is growing in both size and influence.
Democracy Works, a New York-based nonprofit organization working to improve voter turnout in the U.S., understood that low voter turnout put the democratic process at stake, and identified the need to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the complicated challenges facing America's non-voting electorate preceding the 2016 election. They, ultimately, hoped to use insights to improve their flagship product, TurboVote, an online tool that invites would-be voters to receive location-specific election information, and navigate the voting process. To help fill the gap at this crucial time, Democracy Works commissioned SAP's Design & Co-Innovation Center (DCC) to understand first time voters, and to help strengthen TurboVote's usability and appeal. As such, our intent was to in position TurboVote as a leading tool to engage and involve this digitally-native demographic in a voting process that remains in the analog world.
The DCC team utilized a hybrid approach to gain insights, that included exploratory, evaluative, and comparative research. Our exploratory research allowed our client to gain a more holistic understanding of young, first-time voters in terms of what influences them, how they form opinions, what really drives them to take action, who they trust and listen to, and what technology they use, among other topics. After uncovering the needs of first-time voters in our exploratory research, our evaluative research aimed to assess whether TurboVote addressed those needs, and to what extent. We then complemented our exploratory and evaluative research tracks with a comparative analysis of existing services analogous to TurboVote, to better highlight areas of strength, as well as opportunities for the platform, moving forward. This combination of research methods allowed our team to move beyond existing assumptions and develop a richer understanding of Democracy Works's problem space.
Our findings revealed key behavioral trends that heavily influence whether young voters will actually vote or not—and the DCC provided design recommendations to address each one, and to help push more people to the polls. With over 500,000 new TurboVote subscribers in 2016 alone, the work is having measurable impact. But, our research aims to provide value that will outlive both the 2016 election and our engagement with Democracy Works. The organization will be able to continue engaging potential voters in state-level and local elections with their new and improved platform, thus encouraging users to vote in down-ballot and lower profile races, and, ultimately, helping to strengthen the democratic process.
We began our research by acknowledging potential biases and intentionally recruiting for diversity in background, culture, and education (high school students, community college, 4-year, big and small universities, etc.). We used the back wall of our project space to keep the voices and stories of our participants present throughout the process.
A recurring theme throughout the interviews we conducted was a surprising difference between each participant's expectations and reality, with regards to the voting process. While first-time voters imagined going to an official government building to cast their ballot, they were surprised that their polling place was, for example, in a neighbor's garage.
Young voters spoke at length about the influence their families had on the formation of early political opinions. This point was reinforced when we observed the number of parents who brought young children to the polls to provide early exposure to the process.
Aside from family influence, college campuses also provide young voters with the chance to further establish a political identity with like-minded peers across the political spectrum, as early as during orientation, when student group fairs occur.
Politics can pop up in the most interesting ways across campuses. Against a backdrop of student event posters, put in a Ziploc bag and taped to the bulletin board, were flyers for a local candidate who was running to become a party delegate.
Often, interviewees would get sidetracked during, what was intended to be, a straightforward question: "are you registered to vote?" Even if participants remembered going through the registration process, the lack of confirmation upon completion left them unsure and googling "how do I check if I'm registered to vote in [state]?" to confirm.
For young voters, participating in their democracy is something worth sharing. For some, it's that alone. Flaunting voter status on social media is the new "I Voted" sticker.
Participants who tried to encourage friends to vote found that personal nudges are most effective. In this case, the participant included a sense of urgency tied to the upcoming closed primaries in CA.
We utilized co-creative activities in our research to uncover more detailed, nuanced responses to our big questions. When it comes to convincing a friend to vote, not only is a one-to-one channel of communication key, but appealing to an issue that is personally important to the sending and/or receiving party is also vital.
We created a card sorting activity to uncover what information young voters wanted to know about the process and when. It revealed that they weren't just looking for answers to logistical questions about the voting process, but that they were also yearning for information about the candidates and measures on the ballot.
We designed an activity to help us understand what young voters might search for and the results they would want to see when researching the voting process. We were surprised at the significance that a .gov address had on the perceived trustworthiness of a site, as it reduced the likelihood of partisan influence.
We made tangible the implications of our research findings during the second phase of the project as we reimagined the TurboVote experience and presented it to participants. One of our major changes was the inclusion of "help" text that clarifies to users why they are being asked for a piece of information. Here, it explains that certain states mandate the collection of race data through the Voting Rights Act.
In partnering with Democracy Works during this engagement, our ultimate intent was to find ways to frame TurboVote as *the* tool that helps bridge the problematic gap between a digitally-native, millennial audience, and a voting process that still exists in the analog world.
We employed a combination of methods, each designed to allow us to uncover different types of insights. Together, they provide a more holistic picture of the problem at hand.
1. Exploratory research:
• Semi-structured interviews:We combined pre-determined questions with the possibility for participants to steer the discussion—a process that allowed for broader exploration and discovery. We were able to observe subtle cues, like body language and tone, which added nuances not always conveyed in responses alone. They allowed us, for example, to sense feelings of embarrassment or guilt that some felt for having never voted before.
• Contextual inquiry:We wanted to meet with participants in their natural environments, be it their homes, libraries, fraternities, or favorite coffee shops. When meeting with a participant in her dorm building, we observed TV rooms where residents watched debates and discussed issues. We discovered this to be an important touchpoint for reaching young voters at times when they already felt engaged in political discourse. Noticing artifacts like stickers on participants' laptops or background images on their phones helped us unearth additional insights. For instance, while most respondents of mainstream political leanings felt comfortable publicly showcasing their favorite candidate or their views to the world, participants with less prevailing opinions were more hesitant to do so.
• Co-creation activities and prompts: To research a topic as nuanced and complex as political engagement, we needed to leverage design activities to peel away layers of variables that influence voting behavior. For example, in trying to understand how participants might convince a friend to vote, we tried to grasp the tone they would use, the arguments they would make, and how and when they would bring it up. We designed an activity that forced participants to mentally situate themselves in a concrete instance where they had to persuade one friend or connection, something they couldn't replicate by simply speaking to an interviewer. This revealed the importance of focusing on one-to-one communications channels and the use of personal implications of a particular issue as the basis for the appeal.
2. Evaluative research:
We conducted product-level usability testing with existing and new TurboVote users, who were tasked with performing actions, such as onboarding and sign-up, online voter registration, registration address change, and sharing TurboVote with friends. This allowed us to assess how well TurboVote was designed to address the needs of our target user group. For example, TurboVote filters information based on the user's location. However, our research revealed that it could be difficult for this particularly transient demographic to have a single permanent address in the span of a few years. Most participants resorted to entering their parents' address instead, which prevented them from voting in local elections that concerned them more directly. This led us to consider a system of proactive address update notifications synced with the school calendar, when students are most likely to change addresses.
3. Comparative research:
By looking at other services of a similar nature, we discovered several unique attributes TurboVote could better communicate to users. Unlike other tools that mostly help users register to vote, TurboVote also follows the user around, sending notifications via text or email containing important information about elections occurring in their area. Despite the underlying value proposition of such a service, our research revealed that users did not clearly understand this aspect of TurboVote, prompting us to make these distinct offerings clearer.
Our research findings led to a series of prioritized recommendations aimed at redesigning the first-time voter experience through TurboVote.
1. Bridging the gap between intention and action:
When looking to enable behavioral change, three elements must converge: motivation, ability, and a trigger. While we aren't able to dramatically change the current voting process itself, we realized that even the most motivated young citizens fail to act upon their motivation when there is a lack of timely triggers. We found that the strongest trigger to register and to, further, cast a vote, is when the nudge comes from someone a young voter personally knows and trusts. This led us to re-think the way Democracy Works designs their outreach programs, particularly those aimed at universities and colleges (e.g. switching from sending mass emails to students from a university dean to a more personalized peer-to-peer communications model). We also worked to make it easier for users to share TurboVote with their personal connections through social media and email-share buttons with pre-populated, yet personable content. We therefore offloaded some of Democracy Works's user acquisition work to their most active users, by enabling users to recruit their friends to the platform.
2. Touchpoints for digital natives:
Even though young people recognize its inherent bias, most political content that they consume and share exists online and on social media. This setting, where potential voters are most comfortable, where they having conversations about politics, where they feel like their most political or civic selves, and when they are more susceptible to political messaging, is the perfect place to turn enthusiasts into voters. This led us to think about TurboVote's partnership model, and to push them to become part of that online conversation by strengthening partnerships with popular media entities, like Buzzfeed and Snapchat, and by aggregating or creating native content on key social channels. This proved to be an effective model. A Buzzfeed video, featuring President Obama, that was linked to the TurboVote website, allowed them to acquire a significant number of new users. Their partnership with Snapchat was also successful because it allowed its users to register to vote directly within the app, making the experience feel truly effortless and seamless.
3. Instilling a sense of place and accomplishment:
While young citizens found voter registration to be relatively easy, they struggled to figure out what to do before and after, often feeling lost in the process. We worked on design changes that would give users a better sense of place and help walk them through the process with clear steps by providing feedback along the way, and by sharing information to push users across that "last mile" to the voting booth. This meant redesigning the TurboVote sign-up and voter registration flow, adding progress indication, and changing the language of the end screen to help people feel that they've accomplished something important. In addition, we designed a virtual "I registered with TurboVote" badge that could be shared on social networks and passed to friends, which tapped into behavioral studies about people "voting to tell others," as demonstrated by the success of the "I voted" stickers in the physical realm.
The impact of our work has been felt in multiple ways:
1. Bringing design to Democracy Works:
While our client already understood the value of in-depth design research, they lacked the internal capacity to carry out this type of work on their own. We stepped in as a de facto extension to their team at a critical time leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Since the engagement, Democracy Works continues to use our deliverables to inform their roadmap for 2017 and beyond. Additionally, our approach has helped our client think about their flagship product in a new way: we saw a shift from thinking narrowly about TurboVote as a product, to looking at it through a broader service lens. This meant challenging Democracy Works to think about where TurboVote begins and where it ends within the overall voting and political engagement process, resulting in conversations about user acquisition, service touchpoints, and how to tap into TurboVote's extensive network of partners.
2. Increasing TurboVote's reach:
Our research findings also led to immediate product changes, preceding National Voter Registration Day. These design changes contributed to meaningful engagement results (3x higher completion rates), as well as a higher number of voters served, with over 500,000 additional TurboVote subscribers in 2016 alone. This meant that the platform served over 1 million voters during the 2016 election, compared to 150,000 four years prior—a dramatic increase in TurboVote's reach.
3. Strengthening the democratic process:
Citizen engagement is a major pillar of any participative democracy, and low voter turnout is a threat to that premise. Our work is helping address voter turnout issues, not only for the high-profile 2016 presidential election, but for subsequent down-ballot and lower profile races, for which voter turnout is even lower and declining. Additionally, we hope that some of our learnings challenge the prevalent perception of young voters, and millennials in general, as being apathetic or careless, instead revealing a more nuanced view of their constraints, political motivations, and preferences.