According to his Web site, “Jason Kunesh is in the midst of a lover’s quarrel with technology.”
He’s had this quarrel, though, for an impressive array of clients over the years, helping them use technology to tell their story: The Chicago Field Museum, Giant Bike, IBM, Jabber, LeapFrog, Lockheed Martin, the Mayo Clinic, Microsoft, Orbitz, ThePoint/Groupon, Threadless, and United Airline.
His most recent client is one you may have heard something about in the news: President Obama.
The votes have been counted, the results are in, and the dust has settled. Barack Obama has been reelected President of the United States of America. The road to re-election looks a good deal different than it did eight or even four years ago. Although the Web has been playing a growing role as a communications vehicle over the last decade or more, with the 2012 election, it has taken its place alongside TV as a critical medium for a successful campaign.
Jason worked as the Director of User Experience for Obama for America, helping the president with his reelection campaign at a time when millions can be mobilized within an instant through Facebook, Twitter, and, yes, even good ol’ email.
What makes for a successful use of web media in a Presidential campaign is not unlike what makes for any successful marketing enterprise: the user experience. User experience designers work hard to ensure that the a human’s interaction with technology is as pleasing as possible, but the irony is that the best user experiences are the ones that go unnoticed by the user — they just work. By that standard, the Obama user experience was a resounding success, enabling his supporters to feel like they were a part of the campaign.
I recently chatted with Jason about the campaign, the role the Internet played in their success, and how you juggle family life with the demands of the ultimate start-up environment.
Follow Jason Kunesh on Twitter.
GeekDad: Congratulations on your candidate’s recent victory. User Experience Director for a presidential candidate feels like a very 21st century type of job.
Kunesh: Thanks! I was lucky to work on a great team as part of a great campaign. It is definitely a 21st century job, as I am the first person to hold that job in presidential campaign history. After this campaign, I don’t think there will be another one without a similar role.
GeekDad: How did you find yourself in such a situation?
Kunesh: So, I’ve bummed around the internet for two decades, making sites and apps easy to use and good looking, too! That included early stints at Orbitz and ThePoint.com, a collective action startup that gave birth to Groupon. In April, 2011, I was running a design shop locally and stopped by a local venture capital firm to give a Design 101 lecture to (I thought) a local startup.
Instead, it was Michael Slaby from Obama for America. He’d met Harper Reed, and Harper brought together a group of Chicago technologists who became the backbone of the [Obama] technology team. Dylan Richard, Aaron Salmon, and Scott VanDenPlas had worked with Harper on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s transition site.
GeekDad: I hear that the family grew during the campaign?
Kunesh: Dylan welcomed his second son, Felix, to his family while on the campaign, and Aaron and Scott became dads while the campaign was going on. Dan Ratner rounded out the technology leadership and welcomed twin boys while on the campaign, too. Including me, all the core team except Slaby and Harper were dads!
GeekDad: It looks as if internet strategy is becoming a key component rivaling other media strategies in importance for winning elections. How important is a good user experience to that strategy?
Kunesh: Providing a good user experience as part of any of the tools we made aligned with the campaign’s motto of “Respect. Empower. Include. Win.” A large and growing part of our base is younger demographics accessing the web and social media via mobile phones. We needed to make sure our software worked well for them as well as an older demographic of committed volunteers who didn’t grow up with technology. We needed to make sure our software was always fun, fast, and effective at getting our message out and helping our supporters communicate it to their networks.
GeekDad: What are some examples of how you did that?
Kunesh: All of the web applications we built used responsive design [where the application reformats to the device being used], and most of them were built to target tablets first, then phones and laptops. We also emphasized speed and reliability to build trust with our people, some of whom can be pretty skeptical of technology. In addition, we democratized design by collaborating with field staff and volunteers to incorporate their ideas and feedback into everything we produced.
For instance, all of our Get Out The Vote (GOTV) program’s technology was field tested multiple times with users to make sure people could use it and it worked well for them. I don’t want to cast aspersions, but from what has been said in the press about the failure of the Romney campaign’s ORCA project, they didn’t do that kind of preparation.
GeekDad: What were some of the daily challenges you had to tackle?
Kunesh: I alluded to one of them above: when you’re designing for more than half of the people in the country you need to make software that works for people from all walks of life: urban or rural, old or young, well-off or just getting by, high school or post-secondary education, it didn’t matter to us. Our software had to meet you where you were and make it easy for you to get to what you were looking for.
GeekDad: And you were trailblazing in a lot of ways. Social media has come a long way since 2008, and this is the first campaign to deal with a more mature medium, but still untested. How did you deal with that?
Kunesh: Being the first of anything can be tricky. A lot of my time was spent learning what other people did, and teaching them what I did. It took a long time to teach people the value of iteration, which was something the campaign didn’t have time for in 2008, with its extended primary season. I ran the first co-design sessions with people who we wanted to use our software, made the first wireframes, and moderated the first usability tests we performed.
With social media, Jessi Langsen, Sara Lang, Mark Trammell, Amanda Grant and the many talented folks on our team were constantly creating great content. With the interaction design components like our GOTV program where you could ask your friends to register to vote, we did usability testing and lots of optimization.
GeekDad: Did you work in a waterfall or agile methodology to get things done?
Kunesh: People on campaigns had been used to being skeptical of technology since it was previously driven by vendors selling solutions to campaign HQ, then it got released to the teams in all 50 states. We changed that by working in a mostly agile, more iterative fashion, where we invited local volunteers and their leadership to participate and give feedback directly.
GeekDad: What changes did you make based on the feedback from the field?
Kunesh: There’s almost too many to name. The biggest thing is that all 50 states had different needs and ran different programs. In some cases we overreached and had to simplify features to find commonality. In others, we learned from our community feedback and built the application they needed. One of the most successful features was a way for people to see new volunteers in their area and reach out to them in a timely fashion. It encouraged prospective volunteers when they were contacted by our awesome field staff quickly.
GeekDad: When I visited headquarters on a Saturday a few weeks before the election, it was as busy as any start-up I’ve seen. How were you able to balance the demands of your job against keeping a healthy family life?
Kunesh: We worked a grueling pace, especially towards the end of the campaign, when we went to seven-day weeks. Our team’s culture was distinct from the rest of the campaign’s, in that we were generally older and more experienced. The median age of the campaign was around 25, with lots of folks just out of school. Most of our team had roughly ten years’ experience or more.
Since we were in technology, we were around the office a lot, but also were able to work remotely. In addition, I knew President Obama made a point of committing to family dinner as often as he was able to do so, so I had a good model. I would drop off my older daughter, Sophia, who’s 8, at school in the morning, and get in around 8 am. By the end of the campaign, I would get home between 7-8pm, and kiss her and her sister, Vivian (3 years old) good night, then crack the laptop open again until midnight or later.
I knew it was getting to be stressful on the family when one Sunday I showed up at home and the sun was still out. Vivian looked at me and said, “Daddy, what are you doing here!?!”
GeekDad: Yeah, I get that when I’ve been traveling to conferences a lot. Did your kids understand what you were doing and why it was important?
Kunesh: Sophia understood it more than Vivian, certainly. Both girls accompanied me to the office on Saturdays, and Sophia often made posters or helped volunteers in the call center. She was also able to meet the President. I met him twice during the campaign, and the second time when he was thanking each of us I asked him to sign one of the posters she had made.
In addition, each of the new arrivals of the technology team received letters from the President welcoming them and thanking them for their dad’s work. It is reflective of the kind of man he is, and the quality of character of the people around him.
GeekDad: Now that the dust has settled, what’s next?
Kunesh: That’s a good question. After the President hugs you and tells you that he expects you to carry on his legacy, it’s tricky to re-enter the world you once knew. So, I am working on a social enterprise software startup. The goal is to make an organization that does good and does well. It will need to generate enough revenue to build a sustainable organization and attract talented people while providing enduring value to society through open source software.
Want to learn more about User Experience and the Obama Campaign? Jason Kunesh and Jason Cranford Teague will both be appearing at WebVisions NYC, February 26-28.