There is something rotten in Iowa. Shadow Inc., the company responsible for the creation of the IowaReporterApp, designed to simplify tabulation of the Iowa caucus results, launched into the limelight this week when their app failed during the high-pressure starting point for the US 2020 Presidential election. As stated in a CBS report, “Shadow’s capabilities included syncing data between a volunteer management platform and an SMS tool — saving campaign organizers from manual data entry and reducing the risk for mistakes.”


Missing a Key player in their employees

The company founded in 2019, has 10 employees. According to LinkedIn, the team’s roster includes three executives, several developers, and one UX/UI designer. One role that the team was missing is the UX Researcher. UX stands for User Experience. You might wonder why that is significant? While the biggest problems with the IowaReporterApp were largely problems with the coding of the software. However, there were other challenges as well.


More than just Code Bugs

According to this Vice article, to properly log in and submit results, caucus chairs had to enter a precinct ID number, a PIN code, and a two-factor identification code, each of which were six-digits long. “We saw a lot of people entering their precinct ID instead of their PIN in the PIN spot. There were some issues with not knowing where to put what credential, which is a difficult thing to design around,” Niemira said. “Having to sign in with three different six-digit numbers is confusing on the best day, but it was a call that was made in order to help keep this process as secure as possible.”


Engaging a User Experience team for Success

A UX/UI designer is the person in the organization that creates all the ways that the information of the application appears on the screen. Typically they also create the workflow of the screens that a user sees. In other words, they decide when someone would need to see what information at any given time. They “design” how the application communicates with its target users. For example, a designer created the screens where each of the three different security challenges happened in the IowaReporterApp.


Missing Role: UX Researcher

A UX researcher is someone who studies the designs and investigates how people react to the screens. They find places where the product confuses the user, allows normal human mistakes, or fails to discourage a user from doing something to produce an erroneous/deleterious outcome. Using behavioral observation techniques, much like Psychologists and other Social Science disciplines, UX researchers find problems before product launch. From these “usability studies,” the researcher also suggests changes to the designs that will ameliorate many of the issues. For example, the requirement of three different 6 digit codes, at different times, would very likely appear in the research.


The UX team works to devise the best solution to any of the problems uncovered in the usability testing. Then they work with the application developers (the people who are writing the code) to create the product. This includes the creation of useful error messaging, so that users have recourse should the system fail for any reason. This was another non-code bug issue in the IowaReporterApp.


Having a Good Process is a Lifesaver

The IowaReporterApp took two months to develop, although it did go through five months of planning. The rollout happened before properly vetting the product. There were clearly programmatic issues with the application and the release plan was ill-conceived. Having a user advocate looking at the product before release in a systematic way would have reduced the frustration and improved the chances of a simple recovery. In a public tweet, Shadow Inc. has said they learned some lessons. I hope following a good design process is one of them.