“Rocket Surgery,” “Usability Testing,” and Government

In late December I spent the night with 60 homeless folks, sleeping in the church where my wife and I were married. I do it every year. My job was to keep awake. I was there over a Saturday night.

One of the homeless guys got up just before midnight, and started trying to call his unemployment office. He told me that it was HIS job to call in, every few weeks, to tell ’em that he was, yes, still unemployed. That’d keep his checks coming. No call, no checks. Of course, where and when there’s a lot of unemployment, it’s almost impossible to get through.

He’d found out that the BEST time to call is right after midnight, on Sunday morning. There are operators “always on duty,” but there are far fewer people calling right about then. After many calls, he got through just before 1:00AM.

I had to wonder, how many Congresspersons, political appointees, or even civil servants ever thought that homeless people would be calling the unemployment offices just after midnight on Sunday. I can’t believe it’s intentional.

Couldn’t they hire a few of the unemployed folks to man those phone banks to take the calls of the OTHER unemployed? Shouldn’t they be thinking about how their ‘systems’ are used? Is that “rocket surgery”?

Turns out that “usability testing” for websites, etc., is a recognized trade, and one of its gurus, Steve Krug, (among others) has written two books about it  — one of them called, appropriately enough, Rocket Surgery Made Easy. There’s an association for that, and even a journal!

Does government ever do “usability testing” on its programs? When I was a Deputy Director of Al Gore’s National Performance Review, we were focused on the citizen as “customer,” but I don’t remember anything quite like “usability testing.” It would have been a good idea!

…it’s not too late.

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