The Iowa App-tastrophe: Plenty of Blame to Go Around

What we should really be talking about.

I have been running a successful app design and development studio for over 10 years, and the coverage of the Iowa fiasco has me more than a bit miffed. 

Okay, so maybe the app development agency Shadow was not the best choice for the job, as “few of its employees had worked on major tech projects, and many of its engineers were relatively inexperienced,” according to The New York Times. But blaming Shadow is just part of the story. We should also be talking about who hired them.

Right way, wrong way

Designing and developing a thoughtful software experience that works properly is a specialized craft. There is a right way to do things. That right way takes time and qualified, professional people. And, by extension, it takes money. 

People that are making the technology decisions for something like the Iowa caucus need to understand this, and clearly they didn’t. 

I don’t know the people at Shadow, but I’m guessing they probably know the right and wrong way to go about things, and just didn’t have the time or budget to do so. One might legitimately call into question their taking the job under these conditions in the first place. But blame must also be shared with those who commissioned the work, so late in the game and with such a paltry investment. It takes two to tango. 

To put a finer point on things...

I’ve heard some people cite the fact that Shadow was paid $67K for the job, as if that were a significant sum of money in the world of custom software development. Anyone who thinks that $67K is even 1/10th of the budget that should have been allocated to a project like this doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.

I have also heard a lot about the failure to adequately QA the app. I can almost guarantee you that the app was fundamentally flawed to begin with, because the product definition work — the user research and product design work — was not done properly. 

Were the folks running the caucuses interviewed about what their workflows looked like? Were all the use cases considered? How much time was spent with precinct captains at caucus locations, where they would be using the app, to understand the requirements?  

It’s hard to say, but it certainly wasn’t enough. Throw all the QA you want at it, it won’t change the fact that the product probably wasn’t designed correctly to begin with. 

The problem is not the technology

This little rant is directed at the people that make the decisions about how to leverage technology in our civic life, be it in elections, campaigns, or government. And to the people that blame the technology and say we should only be using paper. The problem is not the technology. The problem is putting technology decision-making in the wrong hands. 

Wall Street moves trillions of dollars a day electronically, in countless transactions handled in nano-seconds, securely and efficiently. I think we can figure out how to use tech to count votes in Iowa. 

We desperately need experienced and competent technology leadership to define the needs, allocate realistic budgets over pragmatic timelines, and hire the right help. We don’t know what we don’t know, after all.

This Iowa app project was probably a decent idea. It should have been at least a 10–12 month project, and the budget should have been closer to seven figures, if not more. Proper product definition, user research, interaction design, user testing, front-end and back-end development, QA, and training are all the price of admission. And if done right, it could have been something to be proud of, something to crow about.

To all the pundits out there advocating for less tech in our lives: please don’t devalue the work we do or dismiss technology’s ability to positively contribute to civic engagement. If it really matters, and it does, then you need professionals hiring professionals to do a professional job. Not the clown show we saw on Monday night. 




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