As the 2016 election approached, and the vitriol around the presidential race grew, IDEO alum and engineer Jimmy Chion wanted to do something to keep voters engaged. A San Franciscan, Jimmy worried that California’s blue state status might make residents apathetic about voting, even though there were important state and local issues on the ballot that were hardly being covered. “Luckily, there was a proposition requiring porn stars to wear condoms,” he says. “I felt I could help make the local ballot a little more interesting.”
Jimmy created a site called ballot.fyi, an online voter guide dedicated to explaining the issues in a nonpartisan way. To his surprise, it reached 125,000 people in 24 hours, and a million over the course of the election.
For the last year, he and his cofounder Yvonne Leow have been working on the next iteration, By The Bay (www.bythebay.cool). Thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, they’re helping inform younger voters. “We’re committed to turning residents into citizens by educating them on local issues and elections,” he says.
We chatted with Jimmy about how he and Yvonne designed the guide, what he’s working on for November, and how you can replicate the process.
1. Your guide looks a lot different from the boring, I mean, um, more basic, civic materials we’re used to seeing. What can design bring to a voter guide?
By putting design first, and pairing it with a casual voice, we’re hoping we can make topics like legislation engaging. As consumers, we expect a user experience to have thought behind it, but that’s not something we’re used to seeing in voter guides. We want to make this information digestible, first by making the guide as beautiful and usable as possible, and second by using approachable language.
We assume the reader is smart, but isn’t yet familiar with all the wonky terms in politics, like general obligation bond. Other guides tell you how to vote. We want people to understand what they’re voting on and make their own decision.
Proposition 7: Makes permanent daylight savings, meaning we don't change the clock twice a year.
2. What was your process, and how did you avoid partisanship?
Like any good journalist, we’re first focused on understanding as much as possible, from as many sides as possible. This means reading all relevant materials and talking to people in the orbit of each issue.
Local issues are less polarizing and ideological than national politics, so avoiding bias is easier than you might think. After we’ve done all the research, my cofounder and I are often more conflicted on where we stand on the issues personally.
We design the information to make it easy to process. If it makes sense to visualize something, we’ll create a graphic rather than explaining it with words. After I published ballot.fyi and it blew up, I received many emails suggesting corrections. As stressful as it was, I took it as an opportunity to debate the sender and absorb their knowledge and perspective.
3. What did you want to give voters in your community that wasn't already out there?
In the past, I’ve left a voting booth feeling ashamed that I was sometimes guessing on how to vote. I consider myself well-educated, but I needed to be a better educated citizen. I suspect a lot of people feel that way.
Proposition 10: Perhaps one of the most consequential initiatives, it would allow cities to enact rent control laws again. There's a huge fight from all sides about whether this is a good idea.
4. What design constraints did you need to think about?
Brevity is our primary constraint, but we also do our best to make everything mobile-friendly, because 60 percent of people will visit our site on their phone. Even if they don’t read through an entire explainer, we write our content so that people can understand both sides within a few sentences.
Above all else, we design for the busy professional, who is educated and well-intentioned, but may not have time to fully research everything themselves. We try to get to the point as quickly as possible, make navigation as easy as possible, and have fun with the content.
We picture our users as three personas: One is the diligent voter who spends hours on their absentee ballot well before election day rolls around. Another is the voter who knows they have to vote on Tuesday, so they’re going to spend some time looking into it the weekend before. Then there’s the oh-shit voter who, on election day, doesn’t want to feel stupid and researches as much as they can at work, then runs to the polls right before they close.
We actually see the most traffic the day before the election and the day of the election.
5. What was the hardest part about building it, and how long did it take? (San Francisco is a wacky place with a lot to vote on, so I would imagine a while?)
The hardest part of ballot.fyi was maintaining accurate and up-to-date information. It was just me, and it’s all manual, so I was debating people via email, researching as much as I could, and trying to wordsmith it all to be as succinct and understandable as possible.
Ballot.fyi took about three months, from concept to election day—roughly a month of design, a month of coding and design, and a month of maintenance and advertising. Knowing 20,000-30,000 people were seeing my site every day made October 2016 the most stressful and exhilarating month of my life.
Proposition 12: Mandates a minimum square footage for animals sold for meat, but there's a clause in there that makes all eggs in California cage-free (like literally, not just in minimum size) by 2022.
6. What advice would you give people in other communities about creating their own voter guide?
I’d recommend using whatever tool/medium you’re most comfortable using. You don’t have to build a whole website.
We've seen people create voter guides with Google Slides or Sheets, or simply put together a blog on Squarespace. I've also seen long FB posts, or PDFs shared around social media. The week before the election, people will be looking for the information, and different formats find different audiences. I have yet to see someone make a comprehensive and compelling YouTube series—I’d love to see that.
My best advice: Focus on a specific part of the ballot, and do it well. Don’t worry about reaching a wide audience. Write it for the people you know: your close friends, coworkers, or club soccer team. Research your way to nonpartisanship. In terms of resources, Ballotpedia is dense but can be a good starting place. When in doubt, you can also call your city hall or state government and request information. Having friends that can translate legalese is also useful.
7. What kind of feedback have you received, and what are you planning for the general election in November?
Most of our feedback is positive. I think most people want to get more involved in local politics and understand more, but people are busy and other things take priority.
For November, we’re interviewing the Supervisor candidates in San Francisco and posting the videos. We’re hoping it’s an easy way for residents to quickly get a sense of who’s running and what they stand for. We’re also beefing up a feature we released in June—the ability to take notes on our webpages and then share that with your friends via a private link. We’ve noticed that people rely on their friends to vote, and friends typically have one or two people who are their go-to political person. We want to empower those individuals and compile the research and summarize for them, so they can simply add their commentary and recommendations. By The Bay does not give recommendations, but we encourage individuals to—it helps get the vote out.
Portfolio Director, IDEO San Francisco
Deirdre is a systems designer in IDEO’s Design for Learning studio. She’s happiest exploring the intersection of design, learning, and equity, or throwing elaborate Harry-Potter-themed murder mystery parties.