Monday, November 17, 2008

Web-usability and decentralisation

Anthony has a really excellent post here about the tensions between demands for local accountability and the needs of national government. Don't let anything I say here now distract you from reading the whole thing.

The core question that Anthony goes over is the need for "balancing effectiveness and democratic accountability in delivery of local services centred around individuals."

I read the post just after having looked at an online presentation about usability and the iPhone (ta Kathryn), and it started me thinking about different models of decentralisation. And Anthony's implied use of the term 'user-centred design' (OK, he didn't use those exact words, but still...) made me think about how developments in software will change things. How the medium will shape the message.

Usability and interface design is a fascinating subject. It's a huge growth area in commercial web-development, and the increasing seriousness with which it's taken says a lot about the maturing industry. It has the potential to turn unused services into highly efficient ones if it's done properly.

The practice of usability in design offers a number of lessons that translate well outside the world of XHTML and CSS.

The title of first book that I flicked through on the subject about seven years ago - 'Don't Make Me Think' - is one such lesson that has implications for the whole dialogue around choice. How far does it get in the way of ... well... choice? And, really, since about 2001, books like that, and the work of Jakob Nielsen and others have had a massive impact well beyond the GUI design sphere.
Another is the question of the legitimacy of market choices as a rival to democratic ones. One of the staples of Public Choice Theory has always been that we make only one big decision at the ballot-box every five years and a few smaller ones in between, whereas we indicate dozens of preferences each day at the checkout (and, increasingly, via Worldpay). As Chris Dillow put it when I interviewed him a while ago, "imagine if we bought our food simply by voting for Tesco or Sainsbury every five years."
Now, I don't want to go into it too much here as it's the subject of a book rather than a blog-post, but - as Tom suggests here, this notion of rationality, with markets as their expression, leaves a great deal to be desired.

Indeed, picking up on the discussions around 'behavioural economics', perhaps in some ways, usability and web-design can tell us more about people's preferences. When Anthony talks about user-oriented design of local government services, it is noticeable how little attention is paid by policymakers into the subject of web-usability.

Usability works in a number of ways. Firstly, it re-focuses the design of the interface upon the needs and preferences of the user. In terms of web-accessibility (a separate, but closely-related idea), this means allowing users to customise the interface to meet their particular physical requirements. Poor eyesight? Change the font-size. Dyslexic? Change the fonts and the colours, use a speech-browser, and so on.

One mistake a few commentators make is that accessibility = political correctness. In reality, what this evolving science does is that it removes bureaucratic and diagnostic boundaries around needs and abilities. The 'skip navigation' links that appeared early on when sites had a separate 'text-only' interface. The convention has now been mainstreamed, and many of the better websites offer automatic browser-sensitive options such as single-column views of websites for mobile phones.

So a highly literate, perfectly-sighted athlete can navigate their way around your website on their mobile phone, while riding a bicycle, using only their thumb. And someone who doesn't have the use of their hands and has a visual impairment can using assistive technology interfaces can do so as well.

Things move on. It's a couple of years since I worked around accessible web design, and I know certain approaches to web-accessibility rapidly move from orthodoxy to heresy in this evolving sphere, so I'll leave it there.

But there are other issues. Matching expectations with the use of language, for instance. Have a look at as an example. The design is straightforward, the language used is attractive, and subtly honest - you don't get scripts that pretend to be human in some way with the messages that you are given.

And then there is commercial usability. Large retail websites spend a fortune watching user groups use their website. Put most crudely, eye-tracking software will tell a researcher exactly where on the screen a user first glances when they decide to buy something. The 'Buy Now' button gets moved to that spot as soon as the research results are in. But, more broadly, whole businesses can be re-designed following a usability exercise.

One report that a saw a while ago said that eye-tracking software could even be applied to window shoppers. Look at an item in the window, and find some context-sensitive help that tells you what a bargain it is. Privacy issues abound there, of course.

Enough, already. What I'm trying to say, in summary, is this:

Services can be perfected quite rapidly using other evidence than market data, and this is starting to happen in a way that it didn't use to.

Now, back to Anthony's article. Much of the distrust between Westminster governments and local bureaucracies is in the quality of service design and implementation. One thing Anthony didn't really pick up on is the way that this results in a managerial centralisation - where services are boiled down to processes that are designed to remove professionals and expertise and replace them with a more narrow, er.. flexible workforce. We are seeing feedback mechanisms and - ultimately - service design being perfected centrally and applied locally.

It would be interesting to hear views on how effective this approach is destined to be - it's one that has been barely started, but one that could be expected to evolve rapidly over the next decade.

Will we have a need for locally-designed and implemented services in ten years time? Or will we have replicable bureaucracies all over the country - doing things in the same way, responding to feedback in the same way, allowing users to shape services in the same way? And if so, will this clarify the real political questions that preoccupy elected representatives?

Will it reduce their reliance upon local civil servants? I'm inclined to think it will.

Will it increase the power of those elected representatives? I'm inclined to think it will.

In the wider context of e-government infrastructure combined with post-bailout new thinking, this is an exciting time. I'd argue that a centralisation in the way that services are designed by users may ultimately provide local government with the kind of 'dashboard' that it needs to actually make manageable local decisions again without exciting the displeasure of a Whitehall bureaucracy that can snatch powers away at the first hint of incompetence.

Perhaps this is very deterministic - even idealistic - but it is possible, surely, that centralisation in service design will result in political decentralisation. A new sort of 'subsidiarity'?

I know I'd really need to write a book rather than a post to make this point properly, but can you see where I'm going?

Oh - one final point: Have you noticed that the countries that are the best at designing usable process-fitting products that value design as highly as technical innovation (mobile phones, flat-pack furniture) are the Scandinavian social-democratic societies that have spent the last thirty years being the least distracted by the irrelevant arguments around the need for a universal market determinism in everything?


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