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The Hidden Costs of “Affordable”: Building Applications That Matter

The infamous rollout may have just been usurped as the most prominent civic tech failure of its day.

Over 24 hours after the Iowa caucus, the entire nation is still waiting to learn the full results. Though it will take some time for a full understanding of what went wrong to emerge, one thing is clear: problems with a mobile app played a critical part.

There are reports of problems across the app’s user experience, including downloading, onboarding, account creation, and use. Faced with an app they couldn’t rely on, volunteers at caucus sites fell back to a phone system that was itself quickly overwhelmed.

What can we learn from this drama that’s still unfolding in front of us? Here are a few thoughts.

  1. “Inexpensive” does not mix well with “high-stakes”. This app reportedly cost roughly $63,000. To anyone who works in technology, that number alone is an indication that the app would almost certainly fall short. Building reliable software takes smart humans working many hours — there’s no way around it.
  2. The app is only one part of the experience. Even if the design and technology of an app itself are exceptional, it doesn’t matter if people don’t find it and use it at the right time. Volunteers received little training in the app beforehand, and seem to have encountered it for the first time on caucus day. Those who had weak cell signals at their caucus sites or who encountered challenges creating an account in the app were left essentially without recourse. The essential fact is that the launch of an app must reflect how busy people with busy lives will actually learn about and start using the app.
  3. Security concerns arise when there are functionality issues. Technology experts had raised security concerns about the app in the week leading up to the Iowa caucus, but these concerns were immediately amplified when the app didn’t work, with multiple news articles noting that cybersecurity wing of the Department of Homeland Security had offered to do some security testing on the app, but the Iowa Democratic Party declined their offer. Although security did not seem to be the main problem with the app on the day of the caucus, users quickly jumped to that concern when it wasn’t working as expected.
  4. Software that doesn’t work breaks trust. Within hours of news of the app’s breaking, attention quickly turned from the app’s shortcomings to the party’s shortcomings, with various conspiracy theories emerging in an already-charged climate. When users can’t accomplish their goals with the available technology, they quickly lose trust in the organization that pointed them toward the technology with a broken promise of a faster, easier caucusing process.

While the promise of “affordable and easy-to-use tools” sounds appealing, there are many more considerations to account for when building mission-critical software.

While it likely would not have been necessary for the Iowa Democratic Party to build the most expensive possible app, there is a certain threshold where additional costs provide quality assurance, security, and overall functionality that will help ensure that the technology works.

From large-scale events like a state-wide caucus or the Super Bowl, to everyday occurrences such as transferring money between a checking and a savings account or reserving a movie ticket, the stakes are high when building software that matters, not just for the organization, but for millions of people who need the technology to work as promised.

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