Thursday, September 12, 2002

Florida Voting Mess

So this time the primaries got fucked up. Bad. Voting had to be extended, one precint voted 100% Republican, and affiliations were wrong. All human error you'd say, but the story kept coming back that so many voting touch screen machines were not functioning. Hmmmmm.

(I'm partly plagiarizing myself here from my entry on Plastic.)

As I was reading The Miami Herald link, I could sense there also was a Human Factors problem, I could just feel it. We can these days make a box that can withstand shipping and just switches on. In fact, it is pretty hard not to. And yet all these machines not working, and an article mentioning undertrained operators of what should be an idiot-proof machine... And there it was:

Each device must be booted up with an activator cartridge that must remain in the machine for six minutes. Many workers apparently pulled out those cartridges too soon, crashing the machines.

''A lot of the poll workers were not patient,'' Salas said.

Michael Limas, chief operating officer for Election Systems & Software, which made the machines, claimed that his equipment was blameless.

''When our technicians have gone to polling places, they haven't been repairing machines,'' he said. ``They've had to start the machines over for people.''

He said the failure to properly use the activator cartridges was like ``putting a floppy disk in your computer to copy a large file and popping it out before it's finished.''

Classic. Cla-ssic.

My bet is this machine did not actually give any feedback that it was reading the cartridge properly or that you can shouldn't the cartridge out until it was finished. Five minutes to switch something on is actually a looooong time for what look like glorified televisions. Especially if you have many to switch on in a precinct. Of course people expected 'instant on', just look at all other equipment they use, and what they have to get acomplished. But they weren't getting it.

A human-centered, or humane, interface should manage people's expectations by either not allowing them to not take out the cartridge, or letting them know this initializing is on track and how bad a result aborting would create. To extend the OS analogy, a good UI on an OS won't allow the user to yank out the floppy unless the user is aware of that there will be a bad result (like MacOS; you would have to Cancel the copy and then eject the disk) or at least let you know that the copy was in progress and going well, and show a clean way to abort if necessary (windows, most X11 interfaces, et al).

Blaming operators for not being adequatly trained is the easy way out, but won't do anything to alleviate the problem next time. What is be cheaper, a human-centered machine, or more classes? And it would have averted a PR disaster for the manufacturer: they are now the ones who delivered 'bad' or 'difficult' machines, no matter how much they try to blame operators.

And the mistake is so elementary. No human should need to know to wait exactly or around six minutes to switch something on, the machine should tell them, because the machine knows. No human should need to keep track of what a machine knows, but the machine should help remind the human. I am sure Donald Norman is investigating for a new anecdote as we speak.

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I got my values wrong for sending me text messages over LJ, so anyone who sent me a message requesting my new mobile number will probably have to try again. Sorry. I really am, but who knew I shouldn't enter my telephone number with soaces -- just like everyone enters their number on every paper and electronic form out there?

And remember, I don't know from who the message is. Add an SMS number back. Many, many mobile phones actually accept SMS messages as pages.