Conducted user research for Ragtag

Led research that guided product strategy for a volunteer team of technologists.

Challenge

In 2017, a federal district court found that lawmakers had racially gerrymandered Virginia’s legislative map. The court ordered Virginia to redraw its districts and hold special elections. As a result, all 100 seats were up for election in Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Ragtag, a volunteer team of technologists, wanted to create an automated tool to help all 100 candidates launch simple but effective websites early in the campaign. The team hoped that it could then scale up the tool for the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.

When I joined the project, discussions were underway about what types of content the campaigns would need to provide, how the team should collect it, and which content management system the tool should use. I offered to conduct some rapid user research to learn more about users’ needs.

Approach and findings

I wondered whether campaigns in Virginia needed an automated tool for creating websites. If we developed a tool within several weeks, would campaigns use it, or had they already found alternatives? We didn’t have much data to answer these questions.

In collaboration with volunteers across the country, I led an inventory of the campaigns’ digital ecosystem.

Inventory of the campaigns’ digital ecosystem.

We completed the inventory after just three days. The inventory revealed that the vast majority of campaigns had already created a website, often with NGP, WordPress, Squarespace, NationBuilder, or Wix. In addition, many campaigns had already set up social media accounts and a way of collecting online donations.

The fact that so many campaigns had already set up a digital presence within days of kicking off their campaign raised questions about the solution that our team had been planning to build. We decided to take a step back and do some problem-space research to learn more about the digital problems that these campaigns faced, before brainstorming how we might support them.

Using a discussion guide that I drafted with input from other volunteers, team members and I interviewed campaign managers over the course of a little more than a week.

A draft of the discussion guide, with questions about the interviewee’s background and role, the digital tools that the interviewee uses to solve the campaigns’ problems, and the digital challenges and opportunities that the interviewee has encountered.

Several themes emerged:

  • In general, it was not hard for campaigns to use existing platforms to create a website, set up social media accounts, collect donations, announce events, begin building an e-mail mailing list, or begin recruiting volunteers.

  • However, it was too hard for campaigns to integrate the platforms, so campaigners often found themselves copying and pasting data between systems or looking for other work-arounds.

  • Campaign managers often wished that their content management systems would make it easier for them to customize their sites and improve their appearance.

  • Campaign managers expressed frustration about either the number of platforms that they needed to manage or the limitations of their all-in-one platform. 

  • Campaign managers felt that NGP VAN wasn’t user-friendly, that the campaign wasn’t getting as much value out of it as the company and the party had promised, and that customer support was inadequate. But they often felt that there were not good alternatives for accessing the voter file.

Results

After reviewing this research, Ragtag’s leadership team decided that before developing a new tool, they needed to learn more about campaigns’ needs and the benefits and shortcomings of digital solutions that campaigns were already using. In other words, the situation was complex, and we needed to better understand it in order to create value at scale.

To help meet campaigns’ short-term needs while learning more about challenges and opportunities, Ragtag pivoted and created an initiative called Web Squads.

In Web Squads, each squad works one-on-one with a campaign to create an inexpensive, professional-looking site for a candidate. Squads offer basic services for content strategy, design, implementation, and training. In return, the squad’s volunteers gain a better understanding of the campaigns’ objectives and constraints. They also gain experience with using proprietary progressive platforms and integrating them in various content management systems. 

As Ragtag’s cofounder explained in “Introducing Ragtag Web Squads,” Ragtag planned to synthesize what the squads learned and create a user-centered plan for tackling websites for the next election cycle: 

“Maybe we’ll make a new tool. Maybe we’ll make a how-to guide. Maybe we’ll do something totally different. Whatever it is we do, it will be driven not by a hunch about what users probably want, or by what the engineers think sounds most fun to hack on. Instead, our design and development will be driven by real appreciation and understanding of the problem we’d like to solve, and the folks we’d like to solve it for.”