I work for CSI-Piemonte, one of the largest Italian information and communication technologies (ICT) companies. Our focus is the local public service sector, with responsibility for over fifty-four web sites and technology projects for organizations such as the University of Torino, the Region of Piemonte, the City of Torino, and many other public health sites.
Quality of service and user-centered design issues have become a dominant theme for CSI-Piemonte. In 2002, we established the Accessibility and Usability Laboratory to improve the quality of web products and services and to promote the theme of an inclusive information society within its member bodies.
The lab is part of a long-established tradition of focusing on the relationship between people and technology in this part of Italy. In the early 1980s, Olivetti developed the first European laboratory for software ergonomics. Also in Piemonte, other similar laboratories are at work with the Centro di Ricerca FIAT, Telecom Italia, and the Ergonomics Department of the University of Torino’s Psychology Faculty.
About two years ago, staff at the laboratory began to see a need for involving users in the web design process. Laboratory experience, formal training, and professional exchanges led gradually toward user-centered design (UCD) and accessibility testing with disadvantaged users.
The focus on disadvantaged users was also the result of the passage of a law (Legge n.4/2004) that requires public agencies to provide services to citizens with disabilities. The transformation process within CSI-Piemonte found fertile ground in the field of accessibility. Legal obligations were rapidly translated into new work processes which, in turn, led to the rapid turn-around of products and services that meet legal standards.
The same cannot be said for the field of usability. Introducing user-centered design to public agencies—highly structured environments with a strong technological focus—is a complex process involving profound cultural changes. New professional roles need to be introduced, as well as new work flows, changes to scheduling, and different methods in planning services.
These transformations require time and are complex for a number of reasons, which are discussed below.
Showing the Value of User-Centered Design
When it comes to the content of their sites, many agencies still focus mainly on the agency, rather than the citizen who is the audience for their services. Change is occurring gradually as, little by little, agencies come to understand that—beyond driving innovation and quality—services designed with users in mind will also appreciably reduce costs.
In fact, one common problem is that when the design process relies on guessing, without considering the impact on users, projects often need to be completely revised later to fix fundamental errors, rather than requiring only modest changes for continuous improvement. And this, in the long run, has very high costs.
To improve awareness in public agencies about these issues, it is important to complete pilot programs delivered using UCD methodologies. This lets them experience the advantages at first hand.
The Impacts of Legislation
It has been difficult for a design approach that emphasizes user experience to make headway in organizations that traditionally pay more attention to technological factors. This is clear from a review of Law 4/2004, which is designed to bring the benefits of new technologies to persons with disabilities. To guarantee accessibility, the law requires compliance with twenty-two technical requirements.
For usability, however, although there is an analogous list of twelve points, these unfortunately are not requirements for compliance. The reason for this difference lays in the fact that usability is considered by the legislators as hard to evaluate and verify quantitatively. This view has its roots in the scientific culture that is part of the background of many IT professionals.
In reality, the qualitative approach does provide objective and often irrefutable (although not scientific) indications on which to develop services that consider the user’s human needs and the goals of the agency. After all, a public agency is satisfied when its users—its customers—are satisfied.
Little by little, within companies like ours, IT professionals and others are starting to understand the importance of specialized studies of the relationship between users of services and the services themselves, which is reducing mistrust of, and bias against, qualitative approaches. Clearly, we could make faster progress in this direction if legislators gave to usability issues the same emphasis that they gave to accessibility issues. Law 4/2004 (for the inclusion of users with disabilities) has shown that having specific legal requirements can lead to important results: following its approval, Italy has become one of the most advanced countries in creating accessible websites.
Improving Professional Recognition
It’s important to point out that in Italy there are very few people working in the area of UCD and evaluation. Moreover, the culture of service quality in the field of interaction design is not as widespread as in other areas of Europe. Even university education in the area of UCD is limited, with an academic approach that does not prepare students to become professionals in the interaction design discipline. There is also a lack of recognition of the specific expertise of human factors professionals: the role is often confused with graphic design.
Despite these difficulties, CSI-Piemonte has created a stable workgroup that applies usability techniques to the production of Web applications. The group is demonstrating itself to be a place for continuous learning, a kind of workshop that operates with a strong sense of shared methods and goals achieved.
Saving by Investing in Usability
Further difficulty comes from the widespread belief that investing in usability raises project costs. As demonstrated elsewhere in the world, when economic difficulties arise, it is an easy budget item to cut.
Our experience suggests that usability is not an added cost, but rather a more equitable redistribution of resources between technological activities and the activities of communication and interaction. The true costs are incurred when products and services go unused because of problems related to poor interaction design.
Most important, the consequences of difficult-to-use tools are resistance to learning and user mistrust, which keep many people from receiving the advantages that new technologies offer. In the near future, agency expenditures for the web will have to prove their worth through intense use on the part of citizens. This will be possible only if supply meets demand: that is, if the needs, habits, and characteristics of users are taken into consideration.
Sidebar: Analysis of e-Government Services Provides a Blueprint for Improvement
By Alice Preston
Two organizations, one in the U.S. and the other in the UK, have provided analyses of public and government service websites for the past few years. Brown University’s Taubman Center for Public Policy in the U.S. analyzes country websites as well as those of U.S. state and federal governments. The Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) Insight service in the UK provides website analysis and support for local council governments and a subscription-based service for other organizations.
Taubman Center Study
The Taubman Center for Public Policy published its sixth annual analysis of 198 online government services in August, 2006. (http://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/2006-07/06-007.html). The United States ranks fourth, behind South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, in providing services and information to readers.
This year’s study reviewed 1,782 government websites during June and July 2006. A variety of sites were analyzed, including executive, legislative, and judicial offices as well as departments and ministries such as health, education, foreign affairs, interior, finance, natural resources, foreign investment, transportation, military, tourism, and telecommunications.
The Taubman Center researchers found that 94 percent of these websites have online publications and 72 percent have links to databases. However, only 26 percent (up from 18 percent in 2005) show privacy policies and 14 percent present security policies (up from 10 percent in 2005). Software provided by the company Watchfire Inc. assesses whether websites provide assistance for the vision- or hearing-impaired. According to this software, government websites are still lagging on disability access. Only 23 percent of sites provide disability access, although this is up from 19 percent in 2005.
Society of Information Technology Management
The Better Connected 2006 report, available from the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM) Insight service (http://www.socitm.gov.uk/Public/insight/publications/Better+connected+2006.htm), ranks local authority websites on a four-level rating scale. “Transactional” sites are best, followed in descending order by “Content Plus” sites, “Content” sites, and “Promotional” sites. This year’s Better Connected survey was carried out between 15 November and 23 December 2005 and involved a team of reviewers visiting all websites managed by 468 councils throughout the UK.
This year’s results suggest that websites are improving:
- 110 websites have moved up a category and fifty-six have moved down a category.
- There are an additional twenty-two Transactional sites (vs. an increase of fifteen in 2005).
- Content Plus sites increased by sixty-nine (vs. an increase of forty-nine in 2005).
- Content sites went down by thirty-six (vs. a reduction of twenty-eight in 2005).
- There is one fewer promotional site (vs. a reduction of thirty-three in 2005).
If sharing guidelines and publishing comparisons can spur this kind of improvement, we user advocates should hope this kind of service becomes even more widespread.