Unfreezing the interface

Broadband is now officially bigger than dial-up. Who’d have thought it could happen so fast? When I got my first broadband connection in the UK in July or August 2001, I remember BT having to dig up the road outside my apartment because there wasn’t a good enough line into the house. It took 6 weeks of to and fro to make it happen. In 2001, everyone was saying that for broadband to make it big, there would have to be useful services offered over it – that speed alone was not enough of a sales pitch. I used to do conference presentations and joke that the single biggest thing I used it for was to stay up to date with software patches that were, by then, already getting too big for dial-up. Itunes, Limewire and BitTorrent are, I’m sure, some of the big drivers of usage today. 16 million people can’t be wrong. First it was the geeks that led usage before the chasm was crossed and Joe Public took up the charge.

In a conversation with Marc Andreessen, over dinner at Zuma, a couple of years ago I asked him about the “back” and “forward” buttons and when he thought we might move on from there. I figured that they were already passe, being around 10 years old, and that they were a mark of a very linear web experience, yet, now, sites were starting to evolve far more complicated structures. He said something that has stuck with me since, “Interfaces freeze early.” If it works and enough people get used to it, changing it dramatically is a hard thing to do. BillG said something similar once – he said that only incremental changes to the Windows UI could be made as anything too big would make it too great a leap for users who would be confused.

The interface to government has been frozen for a long time. It sort of works and a lot of people use it. That’s one of the main reasons that most online transactions with government look just the same as the offline transactions. Attempts to create different, better front ends have largely failed – if you need evidence, compare the usage of the Inland Revenue’s own Self Assessment form (which is just the same as the paper one) with Which Tax Calc (which tried an innovative approach of asking questions about your finances and completed the form in the background); yes, Tax Calc cost money (I think perhaps £15 or £20) and yes, the IR form was free, but is that the only reason or was “good enough” coupled with familiarity with the form enough to keep people using the old interface, albeit with a shiny, electronic coat of paint?

I had thought that competition bred the chance to create change in the interface. Based on the Tax Calc example above, perhaps I’m wrong. If Tax Calc had offered its product for free – and perhaps gone the Google way with targetted ads (easily done with ads about finance and so on based on a profile of the tax payer created by the product), would it have been more successful? I’m not sure. I’d like to think it would have been, but I wonder, again, whether the interface in this case is, in fact, the Inland Revenue, and that’s what has frozen early. Thinking of freezing, when the Somerset House ice rink was being constructed for the first time – Winter 2000 I think – I suggested to Nick Montagu, former Chairman of the IR, that we should open it a day early exclusively for the IR staff to have some fun. He held his head in his hands and shook it wearily, counselling me that he could “see the headlines now … Inland Revenue on thin ice again.” And so, it opened on time for the general public alone.

All the news about Gordon Brown setting up a new “benefit” for new house-buyers – where the government would own a share of the house, as would the building society lending the money – got me thinking. I have no idea if this equity-sharing thing will work and don’t really want to get into the politics (e.g. MIRAS all over again?) or finances of it (e.g. who bears the brunt?), so bear with me whilst I ignore all that and, instead, use it as an example of how we might unfreeze the interface.

First the assumptions:

  • The Chancellor has a declared desire to cut red tape. He wants to merge 29 regulators into 7, for instance. He also wants to take a “risk-based approach to regulation”, something I thought was already done but perhaps he means a better stratified approach. As part of this approach, he wants to cut form-filling by 25%.
  • Those applying for a home purchase are already known to government. They’re over 16 so have an NI number, they’re probably employed so have a relationship through PAYE, they may be receiving tax credits, they might be claiming child benefit for one or more children, they’re living somewhere now so pay council tax etc. They may also be known the financial institution where they’re getting a loan, perhaps because they have a bank account or a credit card (indeed, to make that more certain we could insist that you could only get a loan from a bank/building society where you’ve had a relationship for more than x years)
  • It is realistically possible, today, to create an entirely paperless transaction that will be legally acceptable and be accessible to the entire country, whether through broadband in their home (whether they live in rented property, with their parents or wherever) or through a service offered by an intermediary (the CAB, the building society doing the loan etc)

Combining all of these points, we need to design a service that

  • Is Internet only or, better still, entirely transparent within existing processes
  • Reduces to near zero the number of “forms” to be filled in, i.e. does not require anything new to be filled in
  • Relies heavily on existing relationship data, with government and/or with the lender
  • Is self-maintained e.g. when the house is sold, the update to the processes happens in the background without any need for intervention

This wouldn’t reduce “red tape” but at least it wouldn’t result in an increase – and it reduces the ratio of “forms:services”. The idea would be to create a model here that could gradually be backtracked into existing processes so that there would be a reduction in bureaucracy a piece at a time, with over-lapping and duplicate forms being eliminated (and ceremonially burnt in a huge bonfire come November 5th)

Any new benefit, tax credit or other government service could be introduced only if it was a natural extension from an existing service that required no additional bureaucracy to qualify for it, or to prove entitlement. If it wasn’t an extension, then something else would have to be deleted to allow this one to surface – or, better still, 5 things would be eliminated to introduce 1 new one, with some measure applied to ensure that the 5 things deleted weren’t all 1 page simple processes to allow a 500 page mammoth entry.

The lending bank, as part of its “Know Your Customer” process has already identified who you are, you have had a relationship with them for a while, your salary is paid into the account so they know where you get your money (and how much you can afford to borrow). The bank also knows how to talk to government and exchange data with it and the various departments involved in the process. The trick then is to link the “bank-known” data with the “government-known” data, i.e. to match “Joe Smith, Account number 010101010” with “Joe Smith, NI number 1010101010”. So, in this case, the IR would provide the tracing services, cross-links to, say, the local council for other data and, data protection rules notwithstanding, we have the potential to set up a service where:

  • You have no need to prove your identity to government because the bank has done that and taken the trouble to link your “real world id” to your “government world id” – the two are not in any way the same, believe me. With that initial link made, leaping to new services online would be simply a matter of tagging extra identifiers to your main ID. I’m not talking “ID cards” here, just ID as in identifiers.
  • If we really had to, we could issue a digital certificate, perhaps on a USB dongle or as one of those little calculator-style things with constantly changing numbers.
  • The bank sets up the payment of the government’s part of the mortgage either as a direct payment to them or to you as some kind of tax credit or benefit, to the bank account that you hold with them
  • If you sell the house, the bank will be involved in the sale and so can cancel the transaction. The bank can even cross-sell you insurance and god knows what at the same time, defraying some of the costs perhaps

I think this could work. More importantly, it starts with the idea that no new government service should be created that is based on a “form” or a “paper process.” Only if we take that first step can we unfreeze the interface.

Five years ago, I was involved in lengthy dialogues with a certain, large government department. They were launching a new service. It involved oodles of new IT, deployed at a huge cost. Risks and tensions were high given government’s IT track record. The pitch that I and several others made was that the service should be introduced on the assumption that, by the time it was launched, it would be viable for it to be a fully online service. We were laughed at – this was mid-2000, when dotcom was in full flow (if perhaps in the first stage of its downturn) and everything was possible, or at least so we all thought.

I sponsored (and paid for personally) a big dinner where we brought together all of the main protagonists at Teatro restaurant (now, sadly, a night-club come bar that has declined enormously – but I suspect its owner has far more significant things on her mind now). We agreed a ground-breaking deal where an Internet front end would be created for this service that would be available months before the paper and back end mainframe process, reducing the risk of the mainframe IT, reducing the bow wave of applications that would result from the paper process and hopefully, creating a transition to an Internet-only model. We asked for many other things to happen along with this, including changes to the back end architecture and parts of the process to make future changes towards Internet as the default much simpler.

But, in the end, the most expensive dinner I’d ever paid for (at the time, it’s since been surpassed), resulted in a monumental deal. It was, perhaps, the first step towards reducing red tape, reducing the need to fill in forms and unfreezing the interface. Five years on, it’s time to restart such initiatives and lead a drive to decouple the link between “government service” and “form”.

It’s the design, stupid

An interesting comment, in italics below, from P_SW11 in response to my post about “simplicity“, with my thoughts, in plain, after each of his points:

You are confusing design simplicity with user IQ, they are not inversely proportional. If it was, geeks would rule the world.

Um, no, I’m not. At least, not in my mind. Perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly or perhaps you missed the humour in “simple phones for simple people” as a tagline. As I believe you’ve said before, who would have thought an MP3 player with no off switch would lead the world? In many ways, of course, geeks rules the world for the first few generations of technology and then good design comes along to let the late adopters have the benefits too. Did you try putting a wifi network together before Windows XP, or before Apple put wifi in as standard?

Good design principles remove the irelevant, misleading or ambiguous – E.R.Tufte writes clearly on these points for systems folk.

In most cases. Although you’ll be sure to remember the era of mini-stereos with 101 knobs and buttons of all kinds, driven by the need for boys to have things to fiddle with. Personally, I prefer the simple approach, witness my constant desire for a common approach to government website design so I don’t have to look for the search bar (and, yes, I believe you need search – I haven’t found a website of value that doesn’t need search). Here’s a place to go to satiate your need for design. Is design the be all and end all? Do we just know it when we see it? Do you have the same ideas about design as I do? Do you sometimes want something to just “be” rather than “be designed”?

Complicated processes, design, systems and communications inhibit take-up. Why put a handle on a door you have to push open? Bad design decisions offend and just annoy.

True, from my point of view at least. I think often of the Far Side cartoon showing someone trying to get into the School for the Mentally Gifted, leaning hard on a door that says “Pull”. I always wonder why some doors have handles on both sides, perhaps it’s something about symmetry – it’s the ones where you have to look at the door frame to figure out which way it goes that bother me most; or where there’s push and pull in a foreign language on each side – as if it shouldn’t be obvious. If we can’t get the “open door” interface right, how do you expect to do things that are harder? Maybe it’s a lack of thought. Maybe different people have different ideas about design. Watching one of the new RollsRoyces roar by today, I realised that it is truly a “stunning” design, not stunning in the sense of beautiful, but stunning in that it forces a reaction, often emotional but not necessarily one of adoration. Is that bad design?

Design a system for those of us who don’t want to have relationship with our Govt, that is easy, fast and clear to use.

I think you should read some of my previous posts. But, you have a relationship with government and a “system” will not cover up the complexities or, at least, not yet.

Less is definitely more

It certainly is.

The critic in me

I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about a play before but I promised Richard Wilson (not the former head of the civil service but the former star of “One foot in the grave” who is the director of this play) that if I liked his play I’d tell a few people and this seems to be the best way to do that. It’s called “The Woman Before” and is on at the Royal Court in Sloane Square.

Before the show, Richard said that he wouldn’t spend any time with us if we didn’t laugh at least during the first two scenes which, oddly enough for a German writer, are really quite funny; but that after that, he’d understand if we didn’t laugh so much as then “the darkness sets in.”

Well, I loved it. It runs an hour and a quarter, no intervals. And then you can pop round the corner for dinner at Le Poulet au Pot or, as the taxi driver said, “Ah, you mean the chicken in the pot”.

I wanna have text wit chew

Perhaps the best text message to receive would be “See you at my place. 10 minutes. Angelina J”, but given there seems no chance of that one, perhaps it is “We’ve posted your refund cheque. The Inland Revenue”. Lo and behold, two days later, I receive my cheque.

The IR have been sending text messages for over a year now – “Don’t forget to send your tax return”, “We’ve got your tax return”, “We owe you money and are just working out how much”, “You owe us money” etc – and, as far as I can tell, remain one of the few government departments to use text well or even at all.

In January 2002 I did a couple of presentations on mobile government, and even (I’ve just found via google) a couple of interviews. Even the Guardian talked about it. I am, though, more than a little disappointed to see things take so long, but I see a lot of that as a lack of engagement from the centre to reduce the complexities, e.g. what “phone number” to use, how to establish a trusted relationship, how to deal with replies, how to avoid spam and, perhaps most significantly given government’s predisposition to wordy messages, how to get your message across in 160 characters or less. Mobile isn’t the be all and end all of e-government, but it’s a channel that can be used far more, both as a reminder (as the IR principally use it) but also to convey real information. Exam results by mobile seem further away than ever. Is that because everyone gets all “A” grades now so don’t need to know?

The Simple Things

Alain Senderens, the chef at Lucas Carton in Paris, announced this week that, after 28 years of holding onto his 3 Michelin stars, he’s going to hand them back and concentrate on a simpler cuisine, slashing prices by perhaps two-thirds. When I lived in Paris I had the good fortune to eat at Lucas Carton several times, each of which was a monumental feast. The odd thing is that the dinner was, for the customer, entirely simple: you go on, sit down and then everything comes to you. Simply pick the tasting menu and glasses of wine with perfectly matched food arrive throughout the evening until you can hold no more. I say “wine matched with food” because that’s the way the menu was structured. Now he appears to be making it easy for him, the supplier, as well as for the customer.

Vodafone is launching a range of stripped-down, no frills phones – simple phones. They’ll do voice calls and text only – no camera, no bluetooth, no gadgets. The idea is to lure in customers who think that today’s phones are too complicated. I’m not sure I believe that anyone wants to be labelled “too thick to use a cellphone” but Vodafone insist there’s a market. The more comfortable people are with their phone, the more calls they’ll make and the more texts they’ll send – and so Vodafone achieves growth in an otherwise saturated market. I can see the tag line: “simple phones for simple people”

Mobile phone games are getting simpler. They’re relying on an interface that can be controlled by a single thumb. The simpler the interface, the more people will use it and so the more will be sold, making more money. The counter-theory is that people are getting simpler and so need to use fewer digits to control a game.

My old friend (is that too strong a word?) Dan is getting in on the act too. He says that life is simpler if you only have 3 types of pasta in your cupboard. He’s found a supplier who, pleasingly, numbers their goods for him so he has only to pick up No 9, 18 and 27 whenever he’s shopping.

So is e-government following the trend and getting simpler? Simple enough so that more people will use it? Simple for the customer as well as simple for the supplier?

Perhaps not. I observed as much in my “Stop. Rewind. Play” piece a week or so ago. An interesting comment posted to that said:

Absolutely – couldn’t agree more. And surely the virtual structure concerned is Directgov, where departmental silos (at least from the user perspective) are replaced with common sense categories and roles?

While the site isn’t quite there yet, it’s also on track to become the kind of ‘giveandtake.gov.uk’ you envisaged (check out the Money franchise, say).

I almost agreed, right off the bat. But I thought some more and it occurred to me that directgov, whilst a great improvement on what went before, is the equivalent of giving someone an instruction manual, at least written in plain English, for their horribly complicated mobile phone. The phone still has too many buttons, odd shortcuts and sub-menus, long key sequences and hidden menus – even if all you want to do is make a call.

Simple government, as the Prime Minister declared he would provide in his party conference speech in 1997, means both changing the customer experience and changing the supplier side. Simple government is cheap to use and cheap to adminster. Directgov is making it cheaper to use, although it’s not delivered transactional government yet – joining up benefits, say, along the lines of my giveandtake.gov idea. For really simple government (“RSG?”) to arrive, the drawbridges have to be lowered between the towering fortresses that are government departments, data sharing principles will have to be simplified and re-established, identifiers will have to be joined up (not made unique, in an ID sense of the word) and processes will have to be rationalised and made more consistent and, perhaps even, common.

If this government wants to throw away its 3 Michelin stars – which, after all, require delivering complicated things in a specific order with vast numbers of staff to support the process – and concentrate on simpler fare, I don’t think too many people would have a problem. Simpler for the supplier, simpler for the customer. Everyone wins.


Since I left government at the end of last year, the only shuffle I’ve been concerned about is the button on my ipod that plays random tracks from my music collection. Today was the first time I’d really caught up on antics at Cabinet level. Putting aside whether it was or wasn’t a botched job, there are some interesting times ahead.

Patricia Hewitt, almost a part of the furniture at the dti (lovingly called “the department of total incompetence” by Angela Vivian [who died only just over a year ago] and now renamed “the department of Probably Eternal Incompetence”) has moved to run Health. Mrs Hewitt will inherit a big job, priority one of which might be to get a handle on the NHS IT programme.

Accenture announced in April that they were down about $150 million because of, I assume, missed deadlines and the consequent penalties (plus inevitable need to keep a team running longer). Today’s Independent, in an article about the abuses that management consultants are guilty of, notes the case of the e-booking system – that has purportedly cost £200 million (I’m pretty sure that’s not true) but has made only 63 bookings against a target of over 200,000. That same article in the Independent also suggests that the cost of the programme will rise from £6bn to perhaps £30bn (I’m not sure that’s true either, but I don’t have any better data).

Gossip in the industry and amongst the headhunter community says that BT will be the next one to announce they’re up against it and that they’ll be looking for new people to look after things. The NHS programme is (and always was) one of the hardest jobs to pull off in IT. The groundwork has been laid with the procurements and contract lettings, but the delivery side has struggled with complex integration work between multiple suppliers, near impossible stakeholder management and difficult technology deployments, plus one or two other obstacles, like the EMIS issues.

Will there be a shuffle on the NHS client side? Patricia Hewitt, although I’ve never met her, looks to be very different from John Reid and might not interact in quite the same way with the folks running the NHS IT show for her. Want to place bets on some early exits this summer?