Early this morning, The New York Times reported that the Iowa Democratic Party had introduced a new smartphone app to help election volunteers report results at their precincts more easily. Instead, most volunteers opted to call results in to the state party hotline, which was not prepared for the volume. The result has been hours-long holds, disconnected calls, and early delays on the results from the Iowa caucuses.
Why didn’t volunteers just use the app? We at Senior Planet can point to one probable reason: The app’s confusing design and rollout failed to take the needs of its primary users—older adults—into account.
According to The Times, many of the Iowa volunteers responsible for reporting votes are seniors with years of experience supporting elections. Given technology that worked and the appropriate training, they would have been able to fulfill their civic mission. But the app was complicated and unusable in some rural areas, and it was rolled out quickly with no systematic training for precinct chairs.
“‘I have 75-year-old caucus chairs who are sitting here going, “I’m just going to call that in”… This was too many new things to learn for a lot of people,'” Sarah Truitt, co-chair of the Clarke County Democrats, told The Times.
One county chairman told The Times that state party officials introduced the app to his volunteers just days before the caucuses. The app’s complicated download process, which differed sharply from typical app downloads, generated suspicion of a phone virus. Other volunteers who successfully downloaded the app found themselves locked out on election night.
We know firsthand that older adults can successfully adopt new technologies. But they should have access to appropriate training, and the technology’s design should be human-centered.
“Just because you’re not a digital native doesn’t mean you can’t figure out a smartphone app,” said Tom Kamber, executive director of OATS, the nonprofit that launched Senior Planet. “But the social context of seniors learning to use a new technology makes a huge difference to their success.”
OATS relies on research and insights from real older adults to design technology trainings that actually align with their contexts, work with their strengths, and meet their needs. The failure of the Iowa election app rollout is a perfect example of the danger of implementing technology without that kind of support. Who was responsible for training the app’s users? Were older adults and rural dwellers consulted in the design? Did the Iowa Democratic Party reach out to organizations with expertise in helping older adults use technology?
Civic Engagement is one of Senior Planet’s key program impact areas, so we applaud the older volunteers in Iowa for their civic involvement. And we think that all of us, especially those of us donating time to help our country’s civic processes run smoothly, deserve better.