Designing the Political Future

After technology received so much attention as a key differentiator for Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, we asked Scout Addis, a former Cooperista, now the Director of User Experience at Practice Fusion, to discuss his experience working on the campaign. Scout sat down with Cooper Managing Director Doug LeMoine to tell us what he learned and to discuss how design and technology worked together to help win the election and change the future of politics.

Doug LeMoine : I’ll start with a design cliché, but it really applies here. “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” Technology has really changed the way that people get information, form opinions, share those opinions, and so on. This seems like it has a special bearing on the nitty-gritty of a campaign, which is all about getting people involved, promoting a point of view, changing minds. So let’s start with this: How did Obama for America use technology to win?

Scout Addis: Campaigns have traditionally relied on paper, phones, and volunteers to contact voters. Even in 2012 we still printed out a list of names, and then handed that to a person to make calls or knock on doors. They then recorded their notes on paper, and handed it off to someone else to do data entry to get that information back into our analytics systems. That is how phone banking and canvassing is still done.

But all of that’s changing. For example, the Call Tool allowed anyone to volunteer for a phonebank anywhere they had an internet connection. Someone would go to call.barackobama.com, and it would provide them with a script and a number to call. They would call that person, follow the script, and enter the results of the call on the same web page. That information would then be fed into our database and the results of those calls added to what we already knew about that voter. Once we knew what was going on with that voter, we could better determine where to make our next calls.

On election day alone one million calls were made using the Call Tool. That’s a lot of paper and data entry time that we eliminated, and our records were always up-to-date in real-time.

DL: Who owned the technology vision? Who decided what problems needed solving with technology?

SA: The Technology Team served the Field Team. The Field would identify what the most important needs were in terms of tools, and we would work with them to deliver. Michael Slaby (Chief Integration and Innovation Officer) and Harper Reed (Chief Technical Officer) owned the vision for how the Technology Team would operate. Slaby lead technology for the President’s 2008 campaign and he saw where this was headed for 2012 and brought Harper and the Tech Team developers onboard. Based on what happened during this election cycle, and the resulting press the team received, everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, are thinking about Tech 2.0 for 2016.

DL: How did you execute on that vision? How did the vision turn into products?

SA: Every product was different. I’ve heard that the Tech Team alone built something like 200 products throughout the campaign. Those ranged from something as small and highly technical as a set of scripts to do data transformation, to larger efforts like Dashboard, our online organizing tool. Vision turned into products because someone could make a compelling case for the value of that product.

When I first went to Chicago in 2011, I started by doing the typical designer thing. I did a bunch of research, talking to internal stakeholders and people in the field to get a better feel for where design could help them. Most of my work then was centered around Dashboard because it was such an important part of our grassroots organizing strategy, and it needed the most design work. At the time I was working with Jason Kunesh (Director of User Experience) and Dave Castleton another designer. Dashboard was already under development, so I worked on helping to refine the design vision they had.

Dashboard was created to support a snowflake like team structure that evolved from the 2008 campaign. It was a social tool where people could come and talk about what they were doing, report their results, and build a community. It provided a whole host of functionally that would help a person feel connected with the bigger effort.

DL: Did you learn anything on the campaign that you’re going to take back to your work in the private sector? Are there lessons for designers, or for people building products?

SA: I would encourage every designer to apply his or her skills to the political process to help make it better. We need more designers helping with civic engagement. Working on a political campaign is unlike working for any company you can imagine. It’s so fast, so fluid, so data intensive, that you’ll learn more in a day about what works and what doesn’t than you will in a month at most other companies.

The single most important lesson I learned from the campaign is that you often think that you’ve got the right design to solve a problem, but you don’t know for sure until you’ve tested it. Dan Ryan (Director of Front-End Development) and Kyle Rush (Deputy Director of Front-End Web Development) helped me learn this when I was working with the Digital Team helping out with design for the campaign’s various web properties.

From a design perspective there were changes that I would propose, and the developers would execute on because Dan thought they were good ideas. But there were certain areas of the site, specifically anything having to do with donations, where we tested almost every change to determine whether it helped or hurt conversions and revenue.

The advantage we had over most sites is that we could propose a test, set it up in Optimizely, and get definitive results, sometimes in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks, because we had such a massive volume of traffic.

What was very humbling was that there were a number of times where I felt confident about a design change and it wouldn’t even move the needle, even if we all ultimately agreed it was a better user experience.

DL: What kinds of changes had the biggest impact on usage?

SA: In August, the donations workflow underwent an important transformation where it went from a single page to a multi-step workflow, and this turned out to perform very well. Helping to refine that experience was an interesting challenge. I was working with Kyle on suggestions for the donations flow and one of the tests I suggested came back with an 11% revenue bump. I think we were both sort of stunned because it was such a simple change to the design. It was almost a throwaway suggestion.

That’s why I say it’s important to test your design changes whenever possible. You just never know.

DL: What was the change?

SA: I’m going to go with “no comment” for that one.

DL: The Tech Team got a lot of public recognition after the election. It surprised me to see so much attention paid to things that were essentially nuts-and-bolts infrastructure rather than attack ads and Shepard Fairey posters, which is awesome, right?

SA: Yes and no. The way the press responded to the Tech Team was a bit startling. As you might expect the press got a lot of things right, but they also missed the boat in a few areas. All of the accolades were cool to read, we worked insanely hard, and we won, but I personally would have liked to have seen the credit spread around more evenly in the media. This was a team effort all across the board and Tech could not have succeeded if it weren’t for so many other teams.

But two things rubbed me the wrong way about the media coverage. I thought the “dudes with beards” thing went a little too far. Yes, there was a lot of that, but that story glossed over the contributions of the amazing women on our teams.

Secondly, as a designer, I felt that the design and digital efforts for the campaign haven’t gotten nearly the attention they deserved. Josh Higgins (Design Director) killed it. From the main www.barackobama.com website, to the social media images, to all the print, infographics, everything, he and his team delivered a mountain of beautiful, inspiring, persuasive imagery under insane deadlines that was just as important as the technology that supported it. Maybe it was because so much had been written about design after 2008, or maybe because Josh is not the kind of guy who actively seeks out the limelight, but if you look at the body of work that was generated by the digital team it too crushed what the Romney campaign developed. The Romney team was constantly playing catch-up, and on more than one occasion they got caught directly “borrowing” our designs.

DL: So what’s next? How does a campaign keep technology a part of the conversation?

SA: I think the question of the value of technology to a campaign has pretty much been settled. It’s vital. It is a force multiplier. But building it takes precious time, costs a lot of money, requires very specialized talent, and volunteers are still essentially free. Balancing these things is tricky. But I guarantee you this, there are already people thinking about how to improve upon what was built for 2016.

DL: Are they going to keep iterating on it?

SA: Organizing for Action has taken over all of the technology assets of the campaign to help the President with his agenda for the next four years. I think that’s awesome. As to what happens with tools like Narwhal or Dashboard for 2016? I don’t know. I would hope that they live on in some form because that’s a lot of valuable technology.

But here’s the really cool thing. Even if every line of code disappeared tomorrow, the design research, the lessons we learned from testing, and all of the final and proposed designs for the products that are needed to run a presidential campaign are still out there. If you think about it, the work that Jason, Josh, Dan and their teams did was to be the design agency for the political future. Everything we learned about what users want and need in an organizing tool, or a way to do phone banking or how to improve donations, those things are now available, in pixels, for the next tech or digital team to run with on day one. Those design are blueprints for how to win a presidential campaign.

Scout Back

Related Reading

Want to know more about technology and the campaign? Here’s a great collection of articles curated by Manik Rathee.

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