View from the Other Side

View from the Other Side

Discussions between IT executives and industry players tend to resound with clichés like “get your hands dirty” and “eat your own dog food” to describe the hard yakka involved in learning what it’s like to use a technology from the technology users’ perspective.

It’s why the big vendors set up usability labs to help their own development teams — and sometimes those of clients — practise a range of methodologies for systems evaluations, from customer field studies to usability focus groups, competitive analysis to exploratory lab studies and the use of expert (“heuristic”) evaluations to participatory design. And it is why again and again, analysts and consultants warn that to ensure IT efforts are aligned with organizational strategic goals, CIOs must involve business unit heads and others in IT projects from the very day of their inception. And in the case of governments, why shouldn’t those others include the humble taxpayers who are the ultimate end users of such services?

Yet it is a practice that seems noticeable in the omission rather than the commission in many areas of the public service.

How else to explain how government departments can send invitations to seminars, complete with attached brochure taking up as much as four megabytes or more, without having any appreciation of the annoyance of the small business person or individual receiving this invitation who has to pay by the second or the byte for Internet access?

Why else would government Web sites in Australia, the US and the UK get routinely panned for their usability failures?

In June last year user interface specialist The Hiser Group warned that government Web sites were failing to meet the needs of their audience, citing difficulties of navigation, the fact that people using these sites often needed a good understanding of who’s responsible for what in government, insufficient cross-linking, inconsistent information, and that users can become confused when moving between sites.

The Hiser Group report found while no government was setting a usability lead at this stage, multi-tier services such as Victoria’s Multi-service Express deserved praise for providing a single gateway, although it needed to be promoted more strongly.

Failure of CIOs and project leaders to get their hands dirty could explain some of these difficulties. Perhaps more CIOs and other technology leaders should emulate the lead of ATSIC chief executive Wayne Gibbons, when he was a deputy secretary of employment. According to The Canberra Times’ invaluable The Public Sector Informat supplement, during his time in this role Gibbons decided it would be a good idea to go and check out some unemployed people for himself.

So check it out he did, dropping in at a Centrelink office on a busy day and joining the queue.

“By the time he dropped in at the counter he had been fully educated — by others in the queue — as to the best ways of rorting the system.”

Now that’s what one might call a useful piece of research. Gibbons was no doubt able to put his newfound knowledge to all manner of good uses in closing loopholes. Why shouldn’t CIOs apply similar techniques in seeking to close usability loopholes in the systems that citizens are increasing coming to rely on?

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