This is a case study of bad user experience design featuring a dude who wanted to get a business name registered, bored government bureaucrats in white lab jackets, long queues, lots of stamping and a two-week wait.
Back in 2012 when I was still at University of Nairobi, I wanted to have a business name registered. I went to Sheria House, where company administration matters get handled in Kenya.
The queue was hopelessly long, it snaked around the packed and stuffy lobby.
Separated by a wall of glass was the back office where the paper pushers were busy at work, white jackets, walls of burgeoning file racks, and more files threatening to spew from their desks: it was quite a sight.
It took me half an hour to realize that I was in the wrong queue, the bureaucrat behind the counter told me to join another queue, much to my chagrin, where I was to pay for each business name I wanted to have them search for.
“What the heck? Haven’t they heard about this thing called Google…sigh”
By the time I got back to the last one where you hand those prospective names you want to be searched, my legs felt rubbery.
A face behind the glass wall took my paper request, stamped them and gave me the receipts,
“Check after two weeks,” he said, handing over the search request to another minion ready for the next process in the conveyor belt: that’s what the office really was.
I left the building feeling that someone ought to digitize this whole process.
Three years later, a different president and lots of change in the air but still the same problem, just repackaged.
Me, frustrated, again.
Fast-forward to 2015, a brilliant idea had been made to happen in 2014: aggregate all scattered government services under one building, do this in several other towns, create about 600 jobs in the process:sounds brilliant, right?
Yes and no, the concept is great,but the User Experience (UX) is horrible: same paper work, unfriendly government bureaucrats clocking hours and just waiting for 5PM to happen, the queues just got better though: you sit till your behind feels sore.
What About eCitizen?
eCitizen is a web app that aggregates all government services, an ambitious and quite promising project.
So what’s wrong about this solution?
Great User Interface (UI) but ugly UX.
Imagine this: Having to do more than 10 steps to do a Google search — this includes forced registration where you have to confirm an e-mail address and a phone number. Add to that being charged about USD $1.50 per search term.
Sounds outrageous, right? If it doesn't, then you must be from another planet.
A Simple Definition
User Experience (UX) involves a person’s behaviors, attitudes, and emotions about using a particular product, system or service.
From the Wikipedia definition, you can see that having a shiny web app that’s oblivious to the subtleties of human-computer interaction, is a re-packaging of the same Huduma Center problem on a different platform: the Internet.
Accessibility of a key product like government services is very important, so important that the government should have hired the best designers to seriously examine the UX portion.
This Is Africa
In Kenya (and the rest of Africa), SMS (text messaging) is still king and the esoteric idea of having an e-mail address is only pervasive in the urban areas, and among the rural elite: smartphones are not so pervasive either in rural Africa, where the majority of the population happens to live.
Given this socio-economic context, how do you expect a Kenyan with a Nokia 3310 to confirm an e-mail address before being allowed to register a birth, a death or even access a government service that she has a right to?
Why should a small-scale business person weighed down by an oppressive tax regime and run-away inflation all in the name of supporting the self-serving political class have to pay K sh. 150 just to find out whether a business name is available for registration?
Why should a citizen pay to search for information that should be publicly accessible under the Kenyan constitution?
You see…even with the shiny new web app, the bureaucrats are still thinking in terms of manual Soviet-era search while congratulating themselves for being so ‘revolutionary’ by digitizing the bureaucratic red tape that stifles efficiency.
So instead of complaining, I have made a concept app of how I imagine government services should be online, and the code is available on GitHub.
Ideally, the web app should be complemented by an SMS component using platforms like RapidSMS to enable users access via simple structured SMS.
Let’s go through a couple of screen shots.
Lots and lots of data will need to be imported to make the web app useful, be it in Excel or other formats like CSV.
As can be seen from the screenshot above,that can be easily done, same functionality applies to exporting data.
Simple User Interface For A Big UX Problem: Search
Google taught us to keep it simple and let the user discover the rest. Type the business name you want to reserve, if it’s available, you get redirected to the next step.
No need to go through ten horrible steps just to do a simple search.
Need some help?
Check out the FAQs section, or better yet tweet or facebook us (a responsive government).
Business Name Reservation
If the name is available, the user gets redirected here and enters details to confirm reservation of the business name: his or her phone and national i.d number are used as identifiers for the reserved name, no cumbersome registration required.
Business Name Registration
Since business name registration requires certain documents,we redirect the user to this success page and give them the lay of the land in terms of what they need to scan and have with them for the next step: registration of the business name.
Once the user has got the relevant documents, they’ll visit the ‘Registration Tab’, enter their phone and I.D number to unlock the reserved business name and voila!
A registration form appears, where the user quickly enters the details and attaches relevant documents and they’re done.
It gets better, I wrote some celery tasks that automate checking of business name reservations that have expired and deleting them from the database, among other ‘housekeeping’ stuff — in simple language, a fully automated system.
Business name search and registration can take less than ten minutes at minimal cost if the government was to waive theUSD 1.50 per name submitted to perform the search, thus reducing the cost of doing business.
Better yet, make it part of Internet.org to enable free access.
Every phone sold in Kenya should have this installed: as an Applet for basic phones/on all mobile carriers, J2ME app for feature phones and smartphone app for the rest (as a form of Corporate Social Responsibility on the Mobile Network Operators side)
Other government services can be digitized and fully automated the same way, the most notorious one being land search where corruption is rife.
Although the government’s heart is on the right path with regard to digitization, we need to pay more focus on UX, bad UX actually kills, no pun intended.
Cover Image: Huduma Center | University of Nairobi