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A User-Friendly Society?


The first time I heard the term "user-friendly" was in the early days of the IT revolution in the 1980s. User-friendly referred to how easy a piece of software was to use by the typical not-techie user or how intuitive navigating a website could be, again, by a non-techie. I can tell you that the term was magic in its ability for the user to communicate back to the technical designers relating to what worked and what didn't. Some programs and websites looked and functioned as if they had been put together by a half-dozen different committees who never talked to each other, and there were the user-friendly ones that everyone loved.

I wonder why our politicians and leaders in government and industry can't try to make our society more user-friendly; why not apply the same principles and mindset to creating and revising the rules and processes that govern our society? Let's first look at the characteristics of designing a good website. I'll use the adjectives and verbs from the tech approach and strip out the tech-unique portion of the rules. For example, a rule might read, "Well Planned Information Architecture." As this applies to society, we can but may not want to remove the "information" piece; any process or set of rules should contain a well-planned information approach. Using a little Internet mining, I found some general rules for creating anything that might qualify as user-friendly.

User-friendly means that something meets the expectations of the end-user. The end-user is the customer of any product or service, commercial or governmental. The customer processes for governance cut across many entities; lower-income individuals, small businesses, wealthy people, large corporations, the military, charitable organizations, people dependent on government assistance, our trading partners, and our allies worldwide. The customers of governments are people and organizations that interact with the government. People in business, people trying to live their lives, and people and other countries engaged in commerce are examples of such people. It always comes down to people. You have nothing, no country, society, or corporation without people.

Here are some modified guidelines (by me) used by the tech world to try to deliver a user-friendly product or service to their customers.

    1. A targeted approach: You need to design your process, service, or product with your target user in mind; they are your customer; creating a service or product without knowing if you have a customer is a risky business. The old adage, "Build it and they will come." is a pig in a poke
    2. Know who: You need to know who the user of your service is; very few services are one-size-fits-all. If, for example, you are setting up a process to provide business licenses, that is one particular type of customer with specific needs. Then, there are different licenses requiring something unique. You have to know the end-user and what they require from you
    3. Please keep it simple: We say this about so many things in life and then fail to achieve simple. Keep processes as straightforward as possible while achieving the overall goal
    4. Mobile compatibility: While somewhat unique to the tech world, I've left "mobile" in since many functions in society do need to be mobile or transportable
    5. Accessible: In terms of governance, I read this as being both understandable to the user and accessible with minimal bureaucracy. That means that how you get to where you need to go is easy to understand or that instructions and directions are both readable and intuitive to the user
    6. Well planned architecture/Design: This can refer to a structural design of physical facilities, the creation of information, or the flow and steps in any process that the user is required to execute to achieve their end need
    7. Well formatted - easy to scan: In terms of societal processes, this means that it should be easy to understand by a lay person
    8. Fast: This one is obvious. Processes should have the fewest steps possible and be designed to let the user quickly move to the next step on their journey to a solution with minimal or preferably no delay
    9. Consistency: In tech land, this refers to a browser; in society and our governing processes, it means just what it says - procedures should be predictable and repeatable; the user should know what to expect
    10. Navigation: Another no-brainer. Processes governing society should be both easy and efficient in terms of navigating through various agencies to achieve a result
    11. Good Error Handling/Responsiveness: This one is a direct copy of a couple of tech approaches I found. Customers - that would be everyone in our society - should be able to access society's version of a "hotline" and enjoy an efficient process for reporting or resolving errors in the system
    12. Usable Forms: This one shouldn't require much explanation

In my aerospace and defense manufacturing career, I spent just about an equal amount of my forty years on the shop floor; as a manufacturing engineer and an industrial engineer. As an industrial engineer, I got deeply involved in process design and improvement. I recall one boss I had who repeated, ad nauseam, "We are a service organization. Our job is to provide a service to our customers". He was right. Being human, we sometimes want to feel like we are the center of the universe, but in most endeavors, you deliver something to a customer, and they should be the center of your universe. Whatever function anyone is involved in, they (in their role) do not need to exist if they don't have a customer. Think about that. Try to think of any job, process, or service that exists only to serve itself and has no customer. I doubt that there is such a thing.

Here's a simple example of the perfect process of serving the customer - getting your morning latte or drink of choice:

Here's the new process versus the old process:

Old process: ◘ Get up and get ready; ◘ Drive to the coffee shop; ◘ Order coffee; ◘ Pay for coffee; ◘ Wait for the barista to make coffee; ◘ Receive coffee

New process: ◘ Get up and get ready; ◘ Order coffee at home using App & pay; ◘ Drive to the coffee shop; ◘ Receive coffee

We went from six steps to four, and my coffee was waiting for me when I drove by; there were no delays.

What if every government function from sea to sea and border to border approached running their piece of the government with the customer's needs in mind, with the goal of being user-friendly?

There are several critical considerations in developing any new process or re-engineering an old method, which we have just established only needs to be done if there is a customer. Here's a summary of this approach.

First, you need to know that there is a customer for what you are doing. Then you need to meet with that customer and determine their needs and expectations. What are their quality requirements? How fast do they need things to happen? Learn all their expectations. You design the process around the customer's needs, not around something you might think is cool. You might have some fantastic ideas, and you can share that with the customer, and if they agree that it's cool, it might become part of the process. After you know who the customer is and what they require, you sit down and design the process.

You have to keep all the steps listed above in mind as you design the process. It needs to be simple, fast, efficient, consistent, and usable. You need to eliminate or minimize non-value-added events. The simplest way to identify non-value-added events is to see if the process stops and languishes because it's waiting for something or if there are errors that cause it to loop back on itself and do rework. Those are non-value-added events. They waste time and money and do nothing to deliver satisfaction to the customer. If you find impediments to meeting all of your customer's needs, whether in quality or time, get back to them and negotiate a solution; don't let them be unpleasantly surprised.

Finally, you assemble the resources you need to execute the process and run it and see how it works. It will be rare that a new process will be perfect. You need a customer feedback process, and you need to be nimble. Nimble is a lovely buzzword, meaning you have to be ready to pivot and make changes that improve your process in terms of quality, speed, reduced cost, and customer satisfaction.

Okay, this is not meant to be a book on process improvement, but imagine if our government and elected representatives took this customer-focused approach to run our cities, counties, states, and the nation. What if they saw you and me and all their constituents as customers? Instead of playing favorites and politics, they approached their job from a customer satisfaction point of view - all the customers? What if their goal was to be the most user-friendly government agency or function globally?

Is it possible for us to begin re-engineering our governing processes with more of a customer focus and more user-friendly governance? Yes.

Can or will it happen? That's the $64,000 question. As the old saying goes (apologies to vegetarians and animal lovers), "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time". It depends on who we vote into office and what we tell them we expect from them. We are the government customers, and if we make our voices heard, we can make a difference in the service we get.

One of the significant challenges in any organization is how to have a focused and consistent strategy and way of operating as personnel change. If we elect a new president (or mayor or governor) every four or six years, how do we embed user-friendly into our daily operation, so it doesn't fall by the wayside when the top person changes? It's only natural that the head person wants to put "their stamp" on things, and that's okay as long as they do that within the framework of a user-friendly operation.

I've talked a lot about and put a lot of heat on the leaders to do something, but inside any organization or society are many non-leaders, many of whom will participate in the re-engineering process. They have to understand and buy into the user-friendly notion because they have a role to play, an important role.

User-friendly at an individual level means we want to end road rage, cheating on taxes, and be kind to the person next to us or serving us. That takes a significant turnaround for a lot of folks. We need to become a kinder and more cooperative society than today.