13 Feb 2020

Iowa’s Shadowy Results (You Get What You Pay for with Tech)

The ‘results’ from the Iowa caucuses provided a teachable moment for anyone who uses technology, which is to say everyone who reads this article.

In case you missed it, the final tally from the Iowa caucuses came 6 days after voting began, and there are still controversies about the results. This deprived any potential winner from a momentum surge. More importantly, it undermines faith in the democratic process and provides grist for conspiracy theorists who will continue to blog about a system-wide hack or some sort of foreign intrusion.

This confusion stems from reliance on an app that the Iowa Democratic Party used to tabulate and report caucus results across the state. This app was built by Shadow, Inc. (you can’t make this stuff up), a for-profit technology company whose involvement in the election was apparently kept secret by the Democratic party.

It seems, at least from the still limited information publicly available, that there were two issues that have made this opening of the election process a catastrophe:

  1. User error and “iPhone” expectations. Some users, it appears, were confused about which activation code to use, the test code or the election day code. When the activation code did not work (presumably because they used the old “test” code), the users reported angrily that the app was simply broken. Today’s app users generally expect all apps to be as simple to use as their iPhone. Building apps that are simple to use is not an overnight endeavor.
  2. Bugs. They happen. They get resolved. In this case, it appears the short development window did not permit enough time to develop, test, resolve issues, publish enhancements, and repeat. For many apps, this is a continuous cycle. Rather than expect perfection after a first rushed release, perhaps they should have expected bugs after a first rushed release, adjusted, published an enhancement, and then moved on successfully to the main event.

The reality is that it takes significant investment in time, people, and resources to achieve “iPhone” expectations of usability.  On Feb 3, the NYT reported that this app was built and tested in just two months! And very likely, without an Apple-like development budget.

Those of us with any familiarity with the app-development process know that to build and test anything of value from scratch can take much more time than a couple months.

Big Tech (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook et al), through their vast scale and resources, may have created unrealistic expectations that apps that do things as important as tabulating election results can also easily be simple enough for the general public to use intuitively. What’s more is the expectation that these apps can be cranked out in as little as two months.

The reality is that smaller app companies, of which Shadow is one, have the near-impossible task of trying to meet these expectations… And worse, in order to win business against the Microsofts of the world, they need to try to meet these expectations on a low-bid budget. The results, as we have seen in Iowa, can be disastrous.

At RPost we take a long view of innovation and product development. You can have a look at our outlook for 2020 in our blog. We think it’s because we’ve been innovating our e-signature and email encryption services for so many years through an iterative customer feedback process that our products are top rated. We focus on continuously improving our products without distractions or unrealistic deadlines. Try it for yourself (click to learn more about RMail or RSign).

Perhaps the teachable lesson from this whole Iowa Caucus episode is that you can’t cut corners with deadlines or do tech on the cheap, especially with our elections (and our privacy and security) in the balance.