Tracey Varnell: So Jason Kunesh! You’re the Director of User Experience for Obama for America and essentially, the first UX guy to be involved in a presidential campaign in the history of UX. You designed the systems that enabled the Get Out the Vote effort that essentially put the Obama Campaign over the top. So that’s kind of a big deal!
Jason Kunesh: Yeah. It was a privilege.
TV: So I think the thing we’re all wondering is, how’d you get that awesome job? Did you find that on Craigslist?
JK: Yeah. Something like that! Actually what happened was, I went to a local VC called Sandbox to talk to, what I thought was, a startup about the role of design, how it can be a differentiator, and the importance of a design cofounder. When I showed up, it was actually Michael Slaby who was the Chief Integration and Innovation Officer for Obama for America 2012. He had found us.
When I walked it that room, it was funny. I’m like, “what are you guys doing here,” because it was Harper Reed, Dylan Richards, Scott VanDenPlas, Aaron Salmon and myself.
A lot of us had done work with Rahm Emanuel’s transition website and had been known as sort of eGov or civic gov people around Chicago. So they were looking for people that were fairly senior who they could build a nucleus around and expand the team out from there. So there we were!
Their pitch was basically, “we know we’re going to be out spent and we’re looking for a way to use technology to help people in the field be more effective at voter contact. We believe that that combination of volunteers being more efficient will take us to victory.”
TV: Were you personally unbiased about the outcome of the elections or did you want to work for President Obama?
JK: I was definitely very partisan. I wanted to work for the President. I’m a little older, so I remember Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. Even as a young man that was in grade school, I remember thinking he’s saying all the right things. I remember visiting family in California and waiting in gas lines. And I remember hearing him talk about austerity and how consumption wasn’t going to make us happier, but community would.
I really remember thinking that President Obama was going to end up the same as Carter. They would say, “Oh, he tried hard, but Washington ate him alive and it’s not meant to be.” So I felt like I needed to step in and do what I could.
TV: That’s great! So, I wanted to hear about the Dashboard project that you and your team worked on, if you’d like to share a little about that.
JK: Sure. The notion behind Dashboard is that it was basically the equivalent of an online field office. In 2008, there was a really robust presence, and as people remember really fondly, all the outreach that was done was very cutting edge, but it wasn’t connected to the actual field offices in the States.
So if you went to a local field office, you might be really involved online, but they didn’t know about that and conversely, people who are in the field offices had no way to connect with all this pent up desire online to actually effect change.
So the goal for Dashboard, was to try to bring both online and offline organizing together and introduce people to the campaign within their own communities locally.
TV: I think that what you guys were doing was really interesting, because it seems like you were trying to essentially mimic a grassroots movement and bring that into being online. Is that right?
JK: Yeah. That’s exactly right. In ’08, people were organizing around constituency—Veterans for Obama, African Americans for Obama, etc. It got down to the really crazy, cool little internet subgroups—Cat Lovers for Obama, Emo for Obama, all that kind of stuff. Again, these weren’t tied to the greater field organization.
So you had these people who, at a national level or a policy level, were really excited by what the President represented for the environment, women’s issues, or what have you, but there was no way to actually translate that. The goal for Dashboard was that, when you signed in, you gave us your zip code and you were actually tied to a geographic team within your area. Sometimes you might not know it, but the field office might be right down the street from you. When you signed up like that, it also let the field organizer in your neighborhood know that somebody was interested enough to sort of raise their hand and say “hey, I want to be a part of this.”
It was almost a little bit like an enterprise or CRM tool that let the field office know to contact these people because they’re really committed.
TV: They’re opting in.
JK: Yeah, exactly. We knew if we reached out to those people within the first day or two that the likelihood of them taking action was immense—like 80 percent. If you waited a week or two weeks, they forgot they’d ever filled out the form. So it was really important to make sure we were using technology to foster those connections.
TV: That’s amazing! So, you must not have had very long to build the solution. It seems like a pretty tight schedule and a pretty hard deadline.
JK: Yeah. It definitely was. There are lot of constraints that you wouldn’t expect to be there and no way of knowing what they were because we were the first technology team on a campaign like this. We did have an enormous advantage—we had a head start. I started in May 2011. I was on the campaign for about 18 months, but as a user experience and product-focused person, we had a different challenge.
The challenge we had was that 80 percent of the work happens and almost all the volunteers show up in the last three or four months. So you’re designing a product without any users. You have stakeholders, but you have to get creative in how to actually plan for this.
Then the other part that was tough was, like the events, everything had to be viewed as fairly flawless from the start. You know how it is with software projects. You kick it out; it’s kind of ugly. You call it a beta and you test it and you make it better. That was definitely not part of the culture that we were working within, so there was a lot of tension there.
TV: That’s interesting. So going back to when you were building it, how did you figure out—since you didn’t have the folks that were really going to be using the system at that moment—how did you figure out what the solution should do? Did you guys do any field research, talk to stakeholders or did you just dive right in and start building something?
JK: We talked to early stakeholders and we did a lot of secondary research. We looked at things like Pew Internet, for example. Pew Internet and American Life had some really great studies about politics and the internet and what was going on. We looked at close comparables. Because you’re designing everything from scratch, we looked at great on-boarding processes for sites that use location based stuff and great social media on-boarding experiences.
We would look at those and then we would try to look at our general demographics. We made some pretty hard assumptions. We knew our demographic was sort of U-shaped. So traditionally, older women, 55 and up have been a huge part of our volunteer base. Some of them were as technically adept as any of the young kids. Some of them might have hated computers entirely, but they were amazing organizers. So you had a big spread there.
Then, at the other side of the U, you had people basically 18 to 25 who were joining campaigns for the first time. Maybe they were skipping a year of school to do this. So you realized, one is comfortable with desktop, one is comfortable with mobile, and so we kind of zeroed in on some of that based on what we knew from prior campaigns.
From there, we just went through and once we got some of those basic assumptions, we visited lots of field offices.
TV: Oh, you did?
JK: Oh yeah. As they started popping up, especially in early states, all the battlegrounds. We would send people out to visit field offices, sometimes work out of field offices, and we’d do remote usability testing, either with things like Ethnio or basically using the Microsoft Communicator product. We’d do screen shares and get any piece of feedback we could on how things were working.
TV: So how far did you guys go before you started getting feedback in the field? How far out did you design? Were you in sketch mode or did you actually build out something as a prototype?
JK: We tested on the actual system because, since you’re essentially building an enterprise piece of software from ground zero, we put really ugly, really nonfunctional things in front of people very, very early on. Additionally, we did some work with just traditional paper prototypes and clickable PDFs that we would use in person and online.
TV: So how did you measure success? How did you understand that you were heading in the right direction? Was it just from the feedback you were getting or were there actually data points that you were trying to measure to in terms of completion of a task or anything of that nature?
JK: There definitely was one part of it that was just anecdotal or sort of qualitative—for example, were we actually seeing the signs in field offices of the technology being adopted? These folks are energetic, they’re really excited, and they tend to make signs about everything that they’re excited about. So when we started seeing signs that said “Did you do your Dashboard?” or “Are you on Dashboard?” we knew that we were getting there a little bit.
But early on, that was not a foregone conclusion. They rolled out the product and we rolled it out state by state so we could slowly grow it over time. In one of the states, when they first rolled it out, they said, “This is the way you will connect to the campaign” and this volunteer broke down in tears. It’s a low point for a user experience practitioner.
Her take was “Look, I hate computers and I love the President and I want to get involved and now you’re telling me I can’t be involved.” So we had to do a lot of very careful messaging because the things that we take for granted is people within the field of software rollout and how you actually introduce a product to the people who are to use it, that’s not something that is an inherent skill of organizers. They’re great at what they do, some of the best in the world, but it wasn’t an area of familiarity.
So we made sure to reach out to her and say, “Look, we want you to be involved. You choose the toolset. This is just another thing in the toolbox for you.”
But, getting back to your question, we also did some quantitative measures. We looked at how many shifts were people completing. We could look at the entire user base and see the committed volunteers who were not using Dashboard and those committed volunteers on Dashboard. We could see the first-time volunteers who aren’t and first-time volunteers who are on the platform.
TV: Oh awesome.
JK: So we could look at performance on all these different metrics; how many phone calls made, how many doors knocked and you have to kind of normalize it because in each state, the work you do is different. In California, knocking on doors is useless, but California calls vast amounts of the country. California is calling Florida and Ohio every day.
TV: Were you comparing that to previous the election’s data at all or were you just comparing it over time, as you went along?
JK: We were comparing it over time, because the amount of work changes. One of the hard things about a political campaign is that the measures (everything) is localized to the thing you’re doing, so you could look at ’08 and you could do things like understand that the curve was going to go—it would be like doo, doo, doo, doo, dadum, boomf…that’s basically the shape of it. But it’s hard for you to say okay, the shape of this one is this way compared to ’08.
It was different race. The advantage and the foresight of the President and David Plouffe and really, Jim Messina as the campaign manager, where they realized they had a year and a half because the President was the incumbent. They knew they had an extra piece in time and they decided to invest some of that time in technology. That foresight paid off, but again, because the race is different, by the time we were launching Dashboard in ’12 cycle, in the previous cycle, the President was just becoming the nominee because he was neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. So that’s why you couldn’t really compare. It was apples and oranges in comparison.
TV: That’s a great point. So how was your team involved in the Election Day strategy?
JK: We built almost 200 apps, so it was a lot of stuff. Dashboard, by far, was the biggest, but yeah, we built out a full suite of tools for Get Out the Vote.
Get Out the Vote is a bit of a triangle. You’re trying to do three things at the same time. The first part of the campaign is about capacity building, right? So you’re trying to build teams. You’re trying to build neighborhood teams and forge connections in the community. Then, over the summertime, you’re focused on persuasion and registration, general outreach, making sure people are registered to vote, making sure they think voting for the President is a good thing.
Then the third phase is turnout. At this point, you’re just trying to make sure, in communities where people can early vote, that you’re getting them to early vote for a few reasons. One, it sort of shifts the press dynamic. They start looking at those early numbers and they’re looking for signs of enthusiasm. They’re going to report either positively or negatively on that. But the second thing you’re trying to do there is get people to early vote because then, they have nothing to do on Election Day and they could come and volunteer, you know?
On Election Day you’re trying to provide tools for lawyers. Especially in states with past history, perhaps, of unseemly, we’ll call it, voter records, we would have lawyers on site and there would be lawyers who were trained in election law. That was their specialty, and they knew in the state they were in what the election laws were, in terms of polling places opening or closing or what happens in the case of a ballot machine malfunction or a polling place who runs out of ballots.
We had software for them that they could then report that and that was built on top of the Ushahidi platform. We made some pretty heavy modifications to Ushahidi, which is a crisis management platform created in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2008 presidential election.
The lawyers could look at and report these incidences and then at the national level within the boiler room at headquarters, they can actually see across the nation, heat maps of voter supression incidences. We were able to use that data to support, in some cases, some degree of legal action to make sure that people were actually allowed to vote. So it was really important work.
The other part of it was—and both parties ran similar programs in this regard—but we were also trying to do exit polling. You’re trying to make sure the people who said they were going to vote for your person are voting. You have general ideas from primaries and other things about what you think turnout should be like in your district or in your precinct and you’re trying to make sure that what you see is actually mapping to what you think is going to happen.
Then the third app was for the volunteers. The whole Dashboard app, by Election Day, is the most part useless, right? You’ve already team-built and now, those teams completely shift and instead of being neighborhood teams, they’re all organized around the individual polling places. If they’re not getting turnout, they can tell the volunteers in that area and they can go knock on doors or offer people rides or just make sure they can get to the polling place.
So it’s like suppression over here, turnout over here and then, volunteers helping make sure that people are getting the ability to vote. So we ran that whole circuit and eventually, we recruited over two-dozen usability professionals across the country and they helped out in test runs through October. As we did national test runs for the field teams, we did similar test runs for all the software to make sure that it worked.
TV: That’s really cool. So I’m thinking about this effort and I’m kind of laughing on the inside because I think we’re all somewhat accustomed to working on politically-charged projects, but this is probably the most politically-charged that you could get. Do you have a couple of tips for the rest of us on how to survive in a politically charged environment?
JK: Sure. I had some friends who’d worked in previous campaigns. This was my first campaign. So the first thing I would say is, get to know the people that are across the table from you—what their motivations are and where they’re coming from.
I was maybe number 30 or number 40 to join the campaign. We eventually scaled up to 800 people, so every week there were new people showing up and most of the time they were the best in the country at what they did, but you didn’t know what they did. The same was true of us— I mean, I’m just some guy from Chicago, right? Some of the people who have been here in the past have been working for the President for five or six years.
It’s not that your presence or your motivations are suspect, but they know all the other people around the table and they know that they’re committed and you’re showing up as the new person and you’re probably saying things that aren’t familiar culturally or that might sound a little crazy. So a lot of the organizing stuff that we learned from within the field—tell the story of yourself, listen to the story of the other person, find community between those two stories, find what connects you, and then find a way to move things forward—I used that consistently in the campaign. Just taking people out for coffee and finding out what their story was and what motivated them. It made a lot of our relationships much, much better.
TV: That’s really good advice. So I have to ask, similar to other head honchos that I’ve met and had the pleasure to work with, did Obama ever call you up and say make the logo bigger or I don’t like blue or anything like that? How much was he actually involved in what you guys were doing?
JK: Well, there was an early moment when the engineers on our team were building this infrastructure stuff. And the President has dinner with, I think, with Mark Zuckerberg and I think Steve Jobs–—a big kind of summit dinner really early on in Silicon Valley. So he comes back and says hey, they all told me we’re not being social enough. You need to up the social media.
TV: Why don’t you push that up?
“Yes, sir, we will do that.” By the end, hopefully we did.
TV: I think you guys achieved your goals. That’s awesome. So one last thing. Has the GOP made you an offer to switch sides yet?
JK: No, but you know, they did just hire a CTO, so –
TV: Maybe they’ll work on User Experience next?
JK: I welcome that. Not to be facetious. Democracy works better when people can participate. They came after us pretty hard with Orca, right? They had this notion that their Get Out the Vote stuff would work really well and I think it was a pretty clear—they had technical failures, for sure, but they definitely had user experience failures. They were emailing 80-page PDFs to senior citizens to print out for the next day. They gave them a system to log into using PIN numbers and they didn’t actually have the training manual, so people couldn’t log into the system. And it suppressed the vote and it could have cost Romney the election. That could have been a pretty big factor.
Those things aren’t technical. Those are all experience design things. If they had actually done dry runs on that, they wouldn’t have had those problem.
Now it’s very easy for us to say because we had three times as long to get ready. We had 18 months. They had six months. So it’ll be interesting in 2016 because both parties will run new candidates who will go through a nominee process and they will both have six months. I think user experience could be a differentiator. We’ll see how that works out.
TV: Well, it was wonderful to talk to you and we look forward to you sharing more campaign secrets with us at UX Week!