Let’s talk about Iowa.

Hopefully this won’t become a theme, but we have another article related to ongoing crisis in event management here for you.  2020 has been a rush so far hasn’t it?  

Let’s talk about Iowa.

Just to recap, the DNC hired small app developer and (I assume) sexy international crime syndicate Shadow Inc. to develop an app that caucus precinct captains could use to immediately report vote tallies at last Monday’s Iowa Caucus.  The hope here was that results could be shared swiftly and a winner could be formally declared before midnight.  These hopes died when across the state volunteers reported the app freezing, shutting down repeatedly and not accepting information.  This could have just been an unfortunate footnote to the evening were it not for the fact that the back-up phone hotline system also failed under the onslaught of phone calls. As these stories continue to develop, it is also becoming more clear trolls may have blocked the lines by posting the numbers on 4chan.   And here we remain, on the day after the New Hampshire primary, without a final tally.

Image from The Wall Street Journal

Much of the initial criticism after the fact was focused on Shadow Inc. and stemmed from short development times and small budgets.  If you’re an app developer for whom a tight budget, a small full-time staff, and production crunches have never been an issue then congratulations, you’re not a developer at all.  You are in fact, a unicorn (and possibly just lying to yourself). We see this as being unrepresentative of all the issues that would have caused a systemic failure of this magnitude.  So, we’d like to be constructive here and turn the Iowa Caucus into a teachable moment for any of you out there wondering how NOT to let this happen to your firm and your custom event builds.

Decibel does provide our clients with these types of new software solutions.  We haven’t taken a swing at a caucus, but we’re in the same ballpark with network spanned and synced iPad displaysTwitter-powered water fountains, and custom registration systems – we have direct experience bringing these types of builds successfully to our clients.  

We’re offering you our interpretation of what went wrong here by providing 5 things for our clients to consider when searching for and working with the right company for their next archaic voting scheme or experiential build.  

  1. Collaboration. 
    Every App, line of code, and keystroke needs to be a collaboration from the top down. The outcome here was SUPPOSED to be a successful caucus and yet, that focus seems to have been forgotten. Yes, the App may have had a coding error or not been properly tested or rolled out. However, that should NEVER have been the fail point. When working with a properly collaborative team with the focus on the end product (a successful caucus) the backup plan should have ALWAYS been solid. Both failed, which suggests a lack of planning from much higher up in the chain.   Shadow Inc. had issues that cannot be ignored, but simply passing the buck and blaming them does not actually get to the source of what went wrong. With the right backups in place, the app could have been a 100% failure without affecting the end goal.
  2. UI & Adoption
    We’re talking about the environment where interaction between humans and machines occur. While we at Decibel have not had the chance to review the app directly, UI is popping up in the conversation a lot. In the events industry, it is always important to know your audience.  Reports of some precinct captains still using flip phones and even trying to download the app onsite just tells us all of these possibilities were not considered in advance to ensure the UI would work for the actual user. This gets into our next point, the need for time and testing. 


  3. Timelines
    From everything we are hearing, the App was rushed to market. This New York Times article suggests it came together in the past two months.  This is such a compressed timeline to concept, develop, test, revise, test, deploy, educate, and validate that we can’t imagine there weren’t corners cut. You cannot skip these steps. 

    Could it be done in two months? Sure.  If you’re Epic Games and have warehouses of beleaguered software engineers chained to desks to crank out a new Fortnite build every month then anything is possible.  But from the total money spent here, it seems that this was not the case. There needs to be enough time to test and validate. For something as critical as a presidential election, even a software check that each caucus location had downloaded the app and run a test was absolutely doable but not implemented.
  4. Saying NO.
    While we move mountains to produce out of this world events for our clients, there is a time to say no. We don’t like it, but occasionally it is important for us to be good counselors to our clients and save them from themselves. You know what we mean.  Sometimes clients don’t take our advice, and there will always be a vendor in the lurch willing to undercut a price or schedule to get a gig but when you’re working on something as big as the Iowa Caucus, winging it is wildly irresponsible.  We’re more inclined to be upfront so that our collaborations have a strong basis in mutual trust. It’s hard to say no, but it is the right move in some instances.
  5. Training & Tutorials
    According to this WSJ teardown, training tutorials for the App weren’t fully rolled out until a few hours before the caucus was underway.  One thing that we’ve learned is that it’s much more difficult than you’d think to write clear, comprehensive instructions without fully understanding your intended audience.  This adorable video presents a great example of everything that can go wrong when you don’t fully think through explaining how to prepare something as simple as a PBJ sandwich.  Without providing effective training and tutorials to volunteers in the Iowa Caucus, Shadow Inc. and the DNC were absolutely asking for trouble.  Any time you expect to roll out a new App or program, no matter how intuitive you think it might be, there should always be experts on hand to troubleshoot all inevitable unforeseen usage issues.

Are you looking to organize a caucus or hopefully something more straightforward and attuned to the modern era?  We can handle that!  Get in touch with our wonderful team today to get your next big event underway.

David Sonntag
david@decibelmanagement.com
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