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The Laws of USA-bility, According to Scott Thomas (Former Design Director, Obama for America)

BY Rachel Abrams | Tuesday, September 22 2009

To a web designer, IA stands for Information Architect. To a busload of Obama campaigners bound for swing states, IA meant Iowa. Thankfully, Scott Thomas, the former Design Director for the Obama election web site, was on hand to bridge that gap in the months leading up to last November 4th.

Within a week of polling day, Thomas had boarded a plane for Japan, to rest his eyes from screen diagrams, escape from the 24-7 network news treadmill and spouting election coverage. Little did he realize he'd stepped right into a country where the leading cigarette brand is called Hope and every storefront was plastered with billposters of domestic electoral candidates, with way worse graphics than those he'd overseen back home.

Last week, Thomas, who is launching a new book project, Designing Obama, presented to the Interaction Design graduate students at the School of Visual Arts here in New York city, not just to share his vacation photos of Tokyo, but to share lessons from the preceding months designing and endlessly refining what showed up on browsers for Barack.

Reflecting that IA, UX (for 'user experience') and design aren't commonly thrown about in political circles, Thomas likened his task to "guiding aimless children wondering through the vast wilderness of the Internet."

But what are public representatives doing if not meeting the needs of their audience appropriately? With the Obama web site as a perfect case study for demonstrating the power of effective interaction and experience design, he revealed how a common cause reconciled the otherwise divergent outlook and habits of campaign staff and new media designers.

After all, both political strategists and IAs roll up their sleeves to align a candidate, and his media, with what a participant audience have in mind. This time, their success lay in, amongst other things, aligning the design philosophy for the online experience with what the candidate would stand for in office: Promising transparency, responsiveness, public focus, agility, coherence and consistency of purpose and presentation, Obama needed a web interface with those same attributes, to set the tone well before Inauguration Day.

His team, headed by New Media Director, Joe Rospars, centralized the web efforts to "direct directly," as Thomas put it, resisting the sag of productivity on conference calls between campaign headquarters and a traditional network of ad agencies. With this degree of coordination, they could override the heavy bureaucracy that typically messes with consistent messaging and visual design.

The color scheme would be blue (not too blue sky, not too blue collar), white and accented with red call-to-action "Donate Now" buttons. Not a little bit Republican, but patriotic red, white and blue, says Thomas, taking usability cues from the gold "next task" lozenge that Amazon.com employs screen-after-screen so effectively from sale to sale. And why not? The voting public have become savvy online shoppers in the four years since the last major polling day.

Advances in technology also granted them the agility to tailor and update content, rectifying acceptable errors quickly, building, publishing and refining campaign messages for multiple audiences on the fly: Widgets and wizards allowed for quick-drill, on-screen experiences in plain English, projecting that government might well be able to handle the occasional joined-up task. Drawing from site analytics, transactions, like signing up, were customized dynamically to suit specific audiences and sustain their attention and involvement, at the speed of rolling news.

As speeches were broadcast, running mates were announced and door-to-door canvassing gathered pace, streaming video arrived on the site, and prime screen real estate was dedicated to single task-oriented buttons, prompting viewers to sign up, to share a story, to leave Joe Biden a congratulatory note, and of course, to send money. In each effort to elevate civic engagement, the project represented a break from the past: "Elections are like the Olympics for technology," Thomas explained. "Web sites, like campaigns, constantly need to evolve."

Did he refer much to the McCain campaign web site? "Only to laugh," Thomas admitted mischievously to his New York audience. Elephants or donkeys in the room, the students appreciated that the principles they learn as design practitioners, they may also apply as communicators for and with the public, and these lessons already have value all the way to the White House. Thomas launched his book, Designing Obama, funded by contributions to Kickstarter, appropriately online, this week.

Rachel Abrams is creative director of Turnstone Consulting. You can follow their work via Twitter at @turnstonetweets.