eGovernment, or the transfer of government activities to the Internet, is not only a logical trend in communications, but also brings with it a number of clear benefits for both citizens and civil servants. Electronic bureaus can be open 24 hours a day, citizens can communicate with them from anywhere, and electronic forms can be interactive and provide help when being filled in. By eliminating communication barriers, eGovernment enables citizens to participate in greater measure in civic matters, which supports the democratic principle.
Other advantages include the fact that information is in electronic form from the very beginning (eliminating manual data entry from paper forms), human resources can be coordinated more effectively (data processing can be distributed to various regions and outsourced), and electronic communication can reduce costs significantly.
However, from our field’s perspective, there is a serious problem, namely the ability of all citizens to cope with and accept electronic communication with authorities. One must realize the rapidly growing demands for technological skills, and the differences between individuals in this context.
Specific eGovernment Applications
When designing and implementing eGovernment applications, one must understand that they are different from regular commercial applications. In eGovernment projects, the spectrum of users cannot be narrowed down to a certain target group, as they must be designed with all citizens in mind. From past experience we know that a large majority of current computer applications are created by programmers who, thanks to their technical way of thinking, have a hard time understanding the needs of ordinary users that make up the product’s target group. In this case, the problem is even more complex, because the needs and motivations of all citizens must be understood, and the spectrum of their needs and technical skills is very broad. When designing eGovernment applications, one must consider all specific instances of use, so that no citizen is discriminated against.
Simple and direct use of these applications is key, primarily because an erroneous decision can have serious consequences in the life of an individual. When designing eGovernment applications, we find ourselves at the very limits of the fields of User Centered Design (UCD) and User Experience (UX), and it is questionable as to what extent knowledge from these disciplines can be utilized. An example is one of the most basic UCD precepts– that it is necessary to define the user for whom we are designing the product, whether via a target group, primary persona, or market segment. When designing eGovernment applications, one cannot ignore any target groups, and this rule cannot be used. Dr. Nalini Kotamraju and her colleague at the University of Twente have discussed in her research how the user-centered design approach faces different challenges in e-government than in the commercial world.
In most countries, laws, rules and guidelines are too complex for ordinary citizens, who depend on the expertise of the civil servants with whom they communicate when coming into contact with government and the civil service. eGovernment applications force users to take full responsibility for the steps they make, and must thus take on the role of the bureaucrat-advisor. They must not only help the user orient himself in a complex legal system, but also give him a feeling of certainty that he knows and understands all aspects necessary to complete a specific task. Technology must, even more so than in the commercial sphere, help the user instead of being a barrier.
eGovernment in the Czech Republic
In order to gain an oversight of the state of eGovernment in the Czech Republic, our consultants performed an expert review of Data Mailboxes, one of many eGovernment projects in the Czech Republic. This application provides a means of electronic communication with government, and is required by law for all corporate subjects (www.datoveschranky.info – unfortunately, there is no official information regarding the project in any language other than Czech at the moment). During the evaluation, a heuristic analysis method based on Nielsen’s criteria was used. Three consultants performed, independently of each other, predefined tasks that included the following:
- Putting together a procedure, finding and filling in all forms needed to activate a new data mailbox.
- Initial login to the mailbox (due to a several-month waiting period, an existing company data mailbox was used).
- Finding, filling in and sending a company data change form to the Commercial Register.
- Finding, filling in and sending a road tax return.
The assessment was performed using the Windows Vista, MacOS and Ubuntu Linux operating systems. The review focused on evaluating the comprehensive user experience with the product, and thus also included contact with user support and the civil servants who process electronic documents.
The review showed that the result of the development of a relatively costly application is, from the perspective of a regular user, unsatisfactory. The application exhibited unsatisfactory results in eight of ten heuristics.
Our assessors noted, among others, the following serious usability defects:
- The procedure of setting up a data mailbox is complicated and time-consuming. It is difficult to find the correct forms for mailbox activation, and actions and components for mailbox operation. The waiting period to receive login information is unreasonably long.
- In order to use the data mailbox, which is a web service, one needs to find and install a browser extension (in the case of Mac OS X, a desktop application); this installation increases the adoption barrier.
- The login details generated are difficult to remember. One has to choose a password that is so complicated, that for the typical user, who uses the mailbox less than once per month, it is practically impossible to remember. Storing the password somewhere then reduces application security.
- The web form for creating a data message contains 18 header fields, but no field for the actual message text, which must be composed in an external text editor and added to the data message as an attachment.
- The use and appearance of the user interface for editing and reading messages is inconsistent with the rest of the application.
- Data mailboxes do not work reliably on operating systems other than MS Windows. In Mac OS X, Czech letters with diacritical markings cannot be used. The external application needed for reading and composing the messages, causes the browser to crash.
- When addressing problems with the application over the phone, civil servants discouraged the use of data mailboxes, saying that a personal visit to the bureau would be faster.
Since November 2009, all government bureaus and state institutions must use data mailboxes for communication. These institutions can issue electronic forms, and are individually responsible for their quality. If a user spends an hour using an eGovernment application without achieving his goal, he will be frustrated. He will likely call the bureau in question, whereupon the civil servant will ask him to make a personal visit. The user will thus hesitate to give the application another chance, slowing adoption and debases the value of the project.
We must mention that unfortunately the authors of current eGovernment applications in the Czech Republic will not concede the aforementioned facts. The government and its bureaus utilize their hypothetical monopoly, and are not fully aware of the importance of application usability.
The aforementioned problems could be prevented if eGovernment projects made proper use of some User Centered Design principles and took into account User Experience. It would be advisable to concentrate more on user research, thoroughly define user needs, motivations and roles at the beginning of the project, and perform periodic usability testing during implementation.
At ExperienceU, we believe that the design and testing of eGovernment applications requires extensive experience, and thus try to contribute our expertise. Much more so than for commercial applications, thorough attention must be paid to ease of use, accessibility and overall quality.
The design, test and improvement of these applications can be viewed as a mission that will help large numbers of people, and to work with such a broad target group is a great challenge from the perspective of UX professionals.