CSI and Governments on the Web

I’ve become a bit of a fan of CSI recently. I don’t have a TV so I have to wait for the DVDs to come out and then catch up. I’ve just started series 3, sourced earlier than available in the UK from Amazon in the USA.

One of the episodes had the team walking through a casino in Las Vegas. That reminded me of a recent trip there at the end of last year. It was probably 10 years or so since I’d even touched a fruit machine but they didn’t look like they’d changed and I was able to go up to several and play them without even having to think. The usual result happened of course which is that they took all my money.

But isn’t it fascinating that even after all this time, they still work the same way. There’s an obvious reason for that: fruit machines need to make money, if they’re not being played, they’re not making money. A good reason not to play any given one is that, if you look at it and can’t understand it you’re likely to move on. So it’s in the interests of every casino to have very, very similar machines – not identical, but very consistent. Bells and whistles are allowed, but if you move where the “go” button is or change where you put the money in, you can forget it working out.

It struck me that this is a great analogy for government on the web. Not that I want to put coin slots on every government website (although it’s an idea for some), but that consistency thing is a big deal – it’s not the first time I’ve written about that of course, but I thought that this was a new and thought-provoking analogy.

Government is not an every day part of most people’s lives, so some lengthy time – weeks or even as long as 12 months – might elapse between uses. If you have to stare at the site and figure out how it works, you may give up. Usability tests we’ve done recently have shown that people will try for a certain length of time and then give up and phone the helpline, send in a paper form or maybe even just give up all together and not do it. So our websites need to be more consistent to improve usage, improve throughput, reduce the time people spend on them and therefore improve productivity. If online is faster than offline, people will use it.

The other thing about Vegas of course is that despite all fruit machines working consistently, there are still hundreds or maybe even thousands of types. It doesn’t matter how many different ones there are – all flashing and beeping and whatever – because they all work the same way. Government(s) already have hundreds or thousands of websites, and they all flash and beep, but they all work differently. Net result is that people have to scratch their heads too hard to figure out how they work.

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