Here’s how to put your online public services to the test

By Paula Bohmerwald

April 6, 2021

Services employ almost 90% of Australian workers and account for around 80% of GDP. (Image: Adobe: fizkes)

Increasingly, citizens primarily interact with public services online. As a result, government has started investing in digital transformation.

It is essential that all government software (whether it is a website, web portal, web system or an application) is developed with usability in mind.

Although the Brazilian government has taken some action to increase the usability of its government services, it is still not a widespread practice. Public servants should be a bigger part of the process. They may already help by contributing to the maintenance of a government web portal — they update and add information as it becomes relevant. However, public servants should also participate in the software development part of digital transformation, especially in the user testing phase.

This will help them understand the needs of the end user, or citizen. In the process, they will develop a better understanding of the people they serve.

Why is consulting with the end user important?

You may think you can easily put yourself in the position of the end user because you have a lot of knowledge about the service you’re providing.

Consulting users is generally considered complex and time-consuming. However, choosing not to involve the end user means you won’t get insight from the one group that is actually going to use the product. Ignoring the end user might lead to increased costs later on, as it is likely that a user will find the software difficult to use, and the service will need to be restructured.

Therefore, attending to usability as part of the initial consultation with the user should be a key concern for public servants working to achieve digital transformation. You need to get this kind of interaction right the first time around.

Usability defined

Usability is part of a larger discipline known as user-centred design. When it comes to a piece of software, usability refers to the degree of ease with which the user finds, understands, and uses the software. Usability influences whether or not the user trusts the provider.

Importantly, usability requires rigorous testing in the initial phase of software development. This process usually involves the use of prototypes. At this point in the process, changes are still relatively inexpensive to make. We test several things: whether or not a user easily understands how to use the software, the efficiency of the service, the error rate, as well as overall user satisfaction.

Putting usability to the test

Running a usability test is an excellent way for public servants to get closer to the end user, with a qualitative approach. The results of such tests are always valuable and cannot be obtained through any other type of testing.

Usability testing requires that the end user is unfamiliar with the piece of software. A rule of thumb for testing — one that public servants should take note of — is that one should have three to five users who can test each version of a prototype.

These tests can either be conducted at a government institution or where the end user is, and can even be done remotely. They can also be filmed, to record the user’s reactions as well as the performance of the webpage on a screen. Again, nothing is more helpful than observing how a human interacts with the piece of software.

It is important to remind the participants that it is not their IT skills or digital literacy that is being tested, but the software itself. Every test should be overseen by two observers: one to interact with the participants and one to take notes.

Time-keeping is important during testing. For example, it is helpful to know the time it took to complete each task as well as the number of pages that needed to be opened to complete the task. It is worth emphasising that all observations about a user’s behavior and their reaction to the software, as well as any doubts expressed or comments made, should be recorded.

Case in point

And now, an example.

I was part of an IT team designing a new web portal. We decided to carry out the test in a government building. There were a lot of citizens flowing in and out of it, which made it easier to find volunteers.

We decided to include the ‘think out loud’ technique in the usability test. In other words, we encouraged each person who took part in the test to say everything they were thinking as it came to mind. This allowed us to register their opinions in real time.

The test was carried out with 12 users: two users tested the pilot, five tested both the first and the second version of the site. Two observers accompanied the participants in all phases.

We learned a lot during the test, and none of it was difficult to implement when improving the service. We noticed that participants were instinctively clicking on images that had no associated links, and that needlessly lofty terms such as “proposition” and “ombudsman” confused users. The public servants who were involved in the process realised that they needed to simplify the site’s language. We also redesigned several icons, as they needed to be more visible on the site and needed to reappear in all of the sidebars and footers that featured on it.

Once we all started to consider the user’s point of view, and not just the institution’s internal structure or language, it became easier for the user to navigate the site. Their guesswork decreased, and the site became more intuitive.

If we hadn’t focused on the end user in our testing, we would never have been able to improve the site.

Do you consider your government’s services easy to use? The answer might be different depending on whether you’re a public servant, or the end user or citizen who uses the service. Going forward, however, the answer for both should be: yes.


This article is curated from Apolitical.


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