Digital services shouldn’t feel like thumbscrews

I’ve been a blood donor for 40 years. I like the cookies they give out afterwards. Over the years, the Red Cross, through which I donate most frequently, has improved its pre-donation process from a paper-intensive pain in the butt to a mildly annoying, semi-automated deal. Unlike the Transportation Security Administration, there’s no “pre”-like arrangement under which regular donors can bypass the tedious questions about whether they’ve lived in certain places or engaged in particular behaviors associated with no-good blood. Sometimes I donate via Inova. Once a year they team up with the Washington Nationals. You go to the ballpark at a designated time and after making your blood donation, you receive two game tickets, a T-shirt and a park tour. I don’t mind seeing the massive underground beer distribution system one more time.

Tom Temin
Inova-Nationals’ process for setting up your designated time provides a lesson in how digital services can, if badly designed, make a process worse than the old way of phoning and signing up. From a Nationals e-mail you follow a link to a page listing the entire donation day in 15-minute intervals. Pick your time, click on the “schedule” button next to it, and end up at an Inova log-on page. One of the most irritating features of the online life is the multiplicity of “accounts” you have to have. I knew I must’ve had an Inova account. Its log-on page seemed to recognize my e-mail and donor ID, but I simply could not get past the multiple security questions, ending up stuck in a frustrating closed loop of dialog pages. So, I dialed the 866 number. After being on hold for about 5 minutes, a young operator came on and said, “Hello, Mr. Temin.” Caller ID. She made the appointment in literally 15 seconds. No passwords, IDs, security questions. They’ll check my driver’s license when I get there. A confirming e- mail came seconds later. This is the sort of thing Mikey, Tony, Megan and the other stars in the government’s digital constellation need to keep in mind. People don’t want digital services per se so much as they want easy access to whatever services they seek. One of the news sites published a report on a bogus-sounding survey of Americans, concluding we are not particularly interested in digital services offered by the federal government. The implication of the story is that the government is chasing something people don’t want. The particular research firm has a reputation for iconoclastic studies. It gets headlines. But the research and the story dutifully transmitting it are beside the point. For the average American, the federal government is typically no more central to his or her daily thinking than the question of whether Queen Victoria should have annexed the Transvaal. So what? That’s what you should expect from a healthy, free people. Yet everyone at some point in their lives will need to interact with a federal agency. So it’s incumbent on agencies to have good online services. As Veterans Affairs CIO Steph Warren pointed out the other day, if the surveyors had asked whether people want fast, convenient and accurate results when they do need something from the government, 99 percent would have answered, “Of course!” Open data, or the availability of federal agency data sets, also fail to catch fire with the American imagination. A Pew Research Center study confirms that two thirds of Americans in the past year have visited a federal web site. Most people were looking for some piece of information, not specifically wanting to download a data set. In fact, most people think government doesn’t do a particularly good job of sharing information. I suspect that’s related to what they hear in general media about government and the fairly low responsiveness to Freedom of Information Act requests so many agencies exhibit. Here again, that doesn’t absolve agencies from being thorough in how they release data. Data sets aren’t suitable for mass consumption. But each one is highly relevant for some business, trade group or individual. And so agencies spend their time well when they put some effort into making their data sets accessible. Blood donors interact with Inova or the Red Cross at most a few times a year. But when they do, they should have a good digital experience. By the same token, most people ping the government way less frequently than they do Zappos or Amazon. But when they do click on a dot-gov, they expect the same grade of experience.

Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.

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