True story. Some years ago (a lot of years, actually), I began working in an organization that handled millions in donations. The person I was hired by was someone I had worked alongside in the past. She was high functioning but just a tad disorganized. While I, on the other hand, was very organized. I was also very computer-literate at a time when not many people were routinely using computers. At the time they took up half a regular desk and were still largely running off versions of DOS. Nonetheless, they were a godsend at the time. While I was deeply sorry at the time that I did not have shorthand skills, my early adoption of computers led to lots of interesting work and job choices.
I started work on the same day that my manager was taking off for a two-week hiking vacation with her family. While she was away, my responsibilities were to go through the computer and get it organized and then start creating documentation for their existing processes. Ancillary to that would be to help her boss with any correspondence or research in her absence. Halfway into my morning, my manager’s husband called to tell us she had fallen while hiking. Her leg was broken and she would not be back at work for possibly several weeks.
At that same time, her boss was in the middle of a major fundraising campaign. All the donor records were in a brand spanking new computer “program” and he needed regular updates and changes. I searched for documentation – none existed. I searched for whoever had created/was supporting the “program” and finally found a lone “computer guy” literally working in a basement somewhere in their engineering department. He quickly showed me how to retrieve and add records and we were off to the races.
Day two, while entering a slew of new donor information, I ran into a snag and the computer program froze. I tried backing up, backing out, rebooting. No luck. Since DOS and other programs at the time were big on “escape” code, I tried the “Esc” button. And before my eyes, the data began to literally dissolve off the screen. Freaking out I contacted the “computer guy” who told me that he had forgotten all about the escape key. While testing his “program” he had used the escape key as a quick way to delete everything and start over. Usability for him. Not so much for the end user.
Fortunately, he had the good sense to back up every night at midnight so the only loss was to my day two efforts. With eloquent language, I convinced him that the escape key should be returned to its original purpose in the “program” and informed him I would not be touching the data again until that was modified and tested. And since his career also depended on the same leader to whom I was assigned, he grasped the importance of making and testing that change quickly.
I never had to call the “computer guy” again. My manager eventually returned in good health and all ended well. But that little adventure spurred a lifelong interest in web usability. Like many in this field of interest, my own sites are the ones least often reviewed from that angle, though I do try and hope I can be better at this once I am able to focus more attention on them.
Usability is basically being aware of how human beings are most likely to interact with a particular environment. Like all animals, we can do the most unexpected things. But, for the most part, we follow eerily similar patterns – even across cultures.
I recently had an opportunity to be engaged in the use of the Medicare web environment. While they have made huge inroads over the past five years alone, they are still struggling with how real people – and not the bureaucrats behind the scenes – actually use a web environment. One of the worst examples is how they handle the process of “crossover” insurance policies. Medicare cannot change anything in that environment. The insurance companies, once they make a mistake, have a very difficult time finding a way to fix the “feed” on their side. The two won’t talk to each other directly. And the Medicare recipient is left to deal with the detritus and fallout of a mucked up setup.
I recently spent 8 hours on hold over two days with both Medicare and an insurance company trying to get them to work together to resolve an issue. Although at the end of that marathon they reported to me they had submitted the changes and it should be done “soon” (SUCH a relative term in the world of Medicare and health and insurance companies), in fact, as of this writing which is weeks later, it is not. It likely never will be. I could try going to some other government agency and filing a complaint, but when the two groups involved are unable and/or unwilling to work together on behalf of the person they are damaging, I doubt involving ANOTHER government agency will accomplish anything.
Somewhere there is a “computer guy” who knows how to fix this problem but s/he is long gone or isn’t known about or simply doesn’t raise their hand. I really wish there was an “Esc” key. Maybe that would focus some attention on the issue and they would come into the modern era. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very grateful to have Medicare. But they designed and continue to maintain a system that keeps Medicare from having to do any work to clean up malformed records, and the insurance companies can ignore the problem without any ramifications. Which puts the problem back on the user of their website. Usability. When ignored or done wrong, it hurts real people.