Public Sector Services Don’t Care About Happy Customers

I started my programming career without a proper computer science qualification, which wasn’t exceptional in the Netherlands in the wild years preceding the dotcom boom. A sensible dose of the impostor syndrome and a lucky sense of how best to fill the knowledge gaps has stood me in good stead. Starting out as a glorified amateur myself, I have always sympathized with the poor end user, perhaps out of a sense of my own bewilderment with all this needless complexity. I was an early fan of Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox column, who started writing about (web) usability since the nineties.

I don’t think there has ever been a time when computers and software had the same gentle learning curve as using a toaster. Certainly not in the 1950s, when programmer and user were the same person, i.e., an engineer. Dedicated systems remained far from idiot proof long after that and took considerable (memorization) skills to master. Before barcode scanners became common, checkout operators at German ALDI supermarkets had to enter all prices from memory (items had no price tags). It must have been a steep learning curve, but it sure was fast! Such mental feats were required less than a generation ago for a job we would now classify as unskilled labour.

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Specialized applications for the workplace were tough to master, but worth the effort. You had no choice; it was part of the job. But even when PCs became attractive and affordable enough to be bought for the home, usability was still not their unique selling point. With a Windows machine, you bought an office appliance apparently for fun, but getting a version 3.11 setup online with a dial-up modem was painful and needlessly complicated, having to manually edit a phone number for your modem’s dial-up script.

Usability problems are of a different character today, but they’re still everywhere. Where once we had a single machine with its own steep learning curve, now we have several peripherals that all need to talk to each other. And that’s where the pain starts. Multiple vendors, no standardization, feature bloat and just plain awful usability.

It’s almost impossible to raise/lower the thermostat in a strange house, let alone play a Netflix or HBO show on their television. A case in point. I recently took out a subscription on HBO Max, when I found out the app wasn’t available on our four-year old Samsung smart TV. Why not? What’s so inadequate about this TV’s hardware and OS that the HBO app cannot be made to run when Netflix and a host of other streaming services can manage fine? So, I shelled out another 40 euros for a Chromecast, suffered an hour of painful installation, and now I need three devices (TV, Chromecast, iPad) instead of one. Somebody please explain to me how this is not an inferior experience.

If we only used our phones and laptops for entertainment and socializing it wouldn’t matter so much. When the entertainment value cannot compensate the pain of using some gadget or service, cut your losses, chuck it out, and try the competition. Serves them right. But our internet use isn’t only for fun. Many vital admin chores that used to involve filling out a paper form have been replaced with a website or app. Online public sector services have become as indispensable as electricity and running water. And many are way too hard to use.

People with reduced literary skills or cognitive ability outnumber tech savvy geeks by a huge majority in any society. This fact is easily forgotten by the smart people who shape our online experience. But as citizens we are all equal. Getting your driver’s license renewed or applying for some government grant should be made as easy as possible. Sadly, this is not the case. Usability is often dire across the board, and it can cost the user dearly, to the point of criminal negligence in unfortunate cases. Bona fide recipients for child support were forced to repay tens of thousands of euros that these parents allegedly were not entitled to, due to a simple administrative oversight on their own part.

There is an obvious and plausible reason why usability of public services is often poor. The underlying domain and processes are often complex and subject to changes in legislation, especially in the realm of taxation and grants. And everybody who has been in IT long enough knows the inverse relationship between ease of use and effort of design and build. Software that is easy to use is hard to design and software for complex domains are the worst. If you’re Amazon, the effects of usability improvements can be finely gauged with enough A/B testing. It doesn’t come cheap, but the gains in ROI are hopefully proportional to your conversion and turnover.

Complexity of the business domain should be an incentive to design better, never an excuse to foist an inscrutable workflow on the user. Yet for a monopolist there is no such incentive to improve your customer experience, at least not from a money-making perspective. Users have no choice and nowhere else to go. If you’re the single supplier for, say, issuing tourist visas to Brazil, what do you care about conversion rates? Competition? What competition? Setting aside major crashes or hacks, what do you care if your homegrown WordPress visa application site is a pain to use?

Big companies create some terrible websites too, but the sensible ones wise up if their call center keep getting questions that could have been avoided with better usability of the product, provided the customer support team is okay with making itself redundant. I think I answered my own question there.

Anyway, back to public services. Call me a socialist, but if there’s no business case to keep your customers happy and no moral imperative, then the stakeholders should step in, that is, the lawmakers. The right to usable, high quality public online services that are easy to use for anyone with average cognitive skills should be codified in law. We deserve it.