Last night I did my civic duty by casting my vote at the local community center. I walked down since it was not far from my house, and enjoyed the crisp night air. Once I arrived at the community center I noticed that the voting process was being run by a group of elderly women, two of whom had Lenovo laptops, which were curiously tied together by an ethernet cable. Each of the laptops had a label printer attached to it via USB, with the other USB port occupied by a mouse. As I approached one lady noticed me and asked me to fill out a form, which I did, and then asked if I had voted there before, which I had not. That turned out to be a bit of a problem, one that was easily resolved, and one that was caused entirely by the laptops.

The laptops were labeled “Primary” and “Secondary”, and each had stickers on it showing which ports on the side to attach the mouse and sticker printer to. They were each running some kind of database software that had all of our names and registration status. When I was asked if I had voted here before, I said that I had not voted in that town, but I had voted early at the county seat during the presidential elections of ‘08. They wanted to make sure I was in the database, but since they were continually having problems with the computers it took some time.

While I was waiting, a man next to me needed to be registered, so one lady asked another, who was apparently in charge, to come and help put him in the database. I overheard the two of them ask questions like “I’m not sure what the difference is between ‘accept’ and ‘apply’”, and “Ok, I don’t know what to do here, where do I go next?” I couldn’t help but wonder who had designed this system, knowing that its intended users were going to be elderly women who had little to no computer experience. One of the ladies rebooted her computer twice before she was able to get it to work again.

I leaned over to take a look at the screen, and confirmed what I had previously thought. It looked like an application left over from the Windows 3.1 days, multiple screens, buttons everywhere, seemingly random labels. How much simpler and easier could the entire night have gone if they would have given that application to a UX designer first, before sending it out to be field tested.

People have become used to computers behaving this way. They are incomprehensible, confusing machines that if you look at them wrong they break. I wanted to tell the ladies that the problems they were having with the computers were not their fault, but the fault of the people who designed the computer, the operating system, the application, and the process that must be followed to glue them all together. I wanted to tell them that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that computers are meant to make things easier, not harder; simpler, not more complicated. If they don’t, then why do we continue to use them? It would have been easier to stamp everyone with a rubber stamp last night than deal with those machines.

I wanted to tell them a lot of things, but there were people behind me in line, and it had been a long day already. So, I smiled, said thank you, and cast my vote. Then, I walked home and enjoyed the starry night.