Switzerland and the EU are committed to utilizing the benefits of the Internet and Web technology in order to streamline their administration and to make it easier for the citizen to interact with his or her government. In its role as service provider, governments seek to provide a single point of contact (a portal or a human public servant), who guides the help-seeking citizen through a complex web of public administration. This – at least – was the message of the eGovernment Symposium held in Bern on Tuesday November, 18th 2008.
One of the topics covered in depth was user-centricity – of course an essential point if a government is serious about making engagement with public administration easy for its citizens. As a tax payer I was a little bit worried about the fact that SAP is contributing its complex Netweaver™ technology to the user-centricity discussion (see image to the left – sorry, I have only a German version). But if the ones responsible for eGovernment follow the suggestions of Christian Wanner from LeShop – the Swiss Amazon for food supply – I feel more comfortable again. The value of the experience he gained over several years cannot be understated. To summarize:
- A user interface – especially on the internet – can never be simple enough.
- Users do not read instructions – and if they do read them they frequently do not understand them correctly even if your developers are convinced that everybody in the world can understand them.
- Let real users randomly chosen from the street (not the colleague at the next desk) try out the user interface – you will see the proof for the first two points.
There is one important point I would like to add to this: Governments should take great care when designing and implementing user interfaces for their public servants, who are to subsequently provide services to the citizens. Following this advice can actually lead to dramatic tax savings, and here’s why: Offering a public web interface to citizens requires that internal processes are automated. These proceses will frequently cross the border of departments – especially if a single point of contact shall provide complex services as, e.g., founding a company. Thus, public servants need effective interfaces to sub-service providers. Tools should be designed to support the productivity of the public servants as much as possible in executing such cross-departmental processes.
Wasting the time of our public servants is wasting our taxes.
Public servants as web application users require sophisticated (not complicated!) interfaces. In contrast to a citizen who – hopefully – only rarely has to use the web interface to contact public administration the public servant will use his or her tools very frequently – perhaps every day, many times a day. A citizen, therefore, requires self-explanatory interfaces – interestingly in most cases perfectly covered by pure HTML-based applications (no Ajax required). Our public servants on the other hand, need highly optimized, but not necessarily self-explanatory interfaces. It is worth spending some tax Francs or Euros on the training of staff on the systems. They will return our investment very soon by being more productive (or at least their tools are not to blame if they are not productive).
Such interfaces cannot be implemented using standard HTML-based technology. They require a different interface paradigm – instead of forms and pages that are filled up and read one by one in a sequence (request-reply-style) – the interfaces for our public servants must be highly interactive, asynchronous, and in a position to display and change more than one thing at a time. This is normally best covered by event- and component-based user interface technology, such as we know from desktop applications like office tools (cf. picture to the right).
Thus, Rich Internet Applications are vital for implementing eGovernment and making our public servants effective which – in the end – means that our governments will save money (our taxes!)
I hope that user-centricity as discussed at the eGovernment symposium is taken seriously and that session chair Peter Fischer’s closing words will not come true: “User-centricity means that the user is always standing in the center and, therefore, in everyone’s way.”