The Iowa Caucus Debacle: A Lesson in Market Problems and Personas

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The 2020 Iowa Democratic Caucus started out with a bang. Just not the kind of bang the DNC was expecting. 

Precinct chairs across Iowa reported issues with the new election app that was intended to streamline the Democrats’ somewhat complicated caucusing process. While the main news circles around the fact that the app experienced a “coding error” that kept it from reporting the complete results of the data it collected, many caucus chairmen reported problems downloading and logging into the app. 

And these precinct captains weren’t just complaining about the app on the day of the caucus. In fact, many had expressed their concerns about the app days before the event. Several just “gave up on the app” before the caucus even started. 

Apps are great. They’ve been around for more than a decade, and have helped us streamline aspects of our lives that we never could’ve imagined at the beginning of the current century. But as ubiquitous and simple as these apps have become, we tend to forget one thing:

They aren’t designed for everyone. 

As we talk about in all of our Pragmatic Institute courses, you need to know who you’re building your product for, and who is going to buy it. 

Because they aren’t always the same people. 

That’s one thing that both the Iowa Democratic Party and the makers of the caucusing app forgot—or just didn’t know—when they made the decision to promote the use of the app in Iowa. 

Let’s break down the market problems, buyers and users for this particular case. 

The Market Problem

If you’ve ever taken the time to understand how the Democratic Iowa Caucus works, then the market problem is pretty straightforward. If you haven’t mired yourself in those kinds of details, here’s a quick primer. 

Anyone over the age of 18 who is a registered Democrat is eligible to participate in the caucus. Democrats gather at caucus sites in designated areas for the candidate of their choice. Bernie supporters will gather in one corner, Biden supporters in another and so on. 

Candidates must get at least 15% of attendees to support them to be considered a viable candidate. There’s a whole thing that happens when that percentage isn’t met, but we won’t go into that here. 

Anyway, once everyone picks their corners, they do some fancy math to determine the number of delegates awarded at each caucus site. The final set of results (there are three) determines who gets delegates and who doesn’t. 

And they used to do all of this on paper. 

Now, for the average product person reading that explanation, the market problem might be along the lines of “The Democratic Iowa Caucus procedure is way too complicated.”

What the powers-that-be saw was something close to “We need a more modern way to calculate our results.”

And that’s the market problem they tried to solve. 

Buyer Personas

Here’s where the Iowa Democratic Party ran into another problem. 

If you’ve taken our Foundations course, you know that buyer personas have the purchasing power. They might not be the ones to use the product, but they decide whether a product is going to be purchased. 

It’s probably safe to assume that the members of the Iowa Democratic Party believed that they themselves were the buyers and the users. As such, they were going to build something they believed would solve all their problems. 

And they were right. They were the buyers. But you don’t build for the buyers. You market to buyers, and you build for users.

If your buyer and your user are the same—like with a personal smartphone or streaming service—then this isn’t a bad thing. 

But the Iowa Democratic Party leaders weren’t the users. They were only the buyers. And buyers don’t have the same problems as users. 

But in the case of the Iowa Democratic Party, the buyers and users had different problems. 

User Personas

The Iowa Democratic Party leaders who purchased the app weren’t the ones using it. The precinct captains were. 

If the app creators had done their homework and created separate buyer and user personas, they would’ve discovered some key facts about their users. Like the average age of the precinct captains. 

The typical captain probably isn’t in the general smartphone-savvy age range. That’s not to say that there aren’t tech-savvy precinct captains in Iowa, but more than 25% of caucusgoers in the 2016 Iowa caucus were over the age of 65. And 36% were between the ages of 45 and 64. [Source] That’s nearly two-thirds of caucusgoers. 

Given that kind of demographic information about users, an app might not have been the most useful solution to this market problem. Especially when, according to one Iowa Democratic Party chair, “You’d be surprised how many people up here got the old flip cellphones.”

Out of the nearly 1,700 precinct chairs in Iowa, only about one-quarter successfully downloaded and installed the app. [Source]

The lack of training that seemed to go with the app is another issue for this group of users. Another caucus chair said that they were told to “‘Play around in there a little bit,’ and that was about as much training as [they] got.” [Source]

Even the process to obtain the app was overly complicated—and that was true for everyone, not just the older caucus chairs. Because of the app developer’s rushed timeline and hurry to get to market, they didn’t have time to test their product extensively, or “get it approved by Apple for inclusion in the App Store. Therefore, the app had to be downloaded by bypassing a phone’s security settings, a complicated process for anyone unfamiliar with the intricacies of mobile operating systems, much less many of the ‘older, less tech-savvy caucus chairs of Iowa’.”[Source]

Elesha Gayman, the Scott County Democratice chair echoed these issues, saying that the app was “unique; it’s not something you can download in the app store. You actually had to fill out a form. In addition to that, you got a series of PIN numbers. And so, yeah, there was a lot of layers … Anecdotally, a few of the people I do know who used the app successfully were younger people, but I do know some young people that also had troubles, just so many layers.” [Source]

What Does It All Mean?

Did the app company rush through production? Possibly. 

Did the app company and the Iowa Democratic Party build for their buyers rather than their users? Probably. 

Could they have benefited from taking a few Pragmatic Institute courses? Absolutely. 

The Iowa Democratic Party and the app developer have issued apologies and said that they’ve fixed the issues. The Democratic Party in Nevada said they would avoid the issues that plagued Iowa by using a different app and vendor, and will have redundancies in place. But in the end, it all means the same thing. 

If you don’t take the time to listen to your market, identify and validate the market problem, and understand and define your buyer and user personas, no amount of apologies or promises is going to fix anything. 

If you have a product or service—be it software, hardware, an app or a candidate—you need to understand your market and its problems to build what it needs.

Kelli Lapointe

Kelli Lapointe

Kelli Lapointe is the Content Marketing Manager for Pragmatic Institute. 


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