I took a trip this weekend which involved air travel. As I stood in line to wait my turn at the "mandatory" self service kiosk to check in, I observed an elderly couple struggling with the process. I say "mandatory" because the two employees behind the kiosks (who were not employees of the airline we were trying to check in to) offered no other help to anyone other than suggesting what they might be doing wrong regarding the self service terminal.
Meanwhile, the elderly couple worked unsuccessfully at trying to check in. Before I had a chance to do so, another passenger stepped forward and worked the display terminal for them so that they could finally get checked in. The couple was clearly distraught at the whole process and was grateful for having had a person finally help them out of their torture of dealing with this particular technology.
As I stood there, I wondered if the airline really intended (or cared) for the process to work the way it does. Do they really intend for the process to be as difficult as it is for the elderly, or sight-impaired, or reading-challenged? I am sure that the self-service kiosks were meant to reduce personnel needed at the ticket counter, therefore saving the airline money, but I hope they had better intentions for the usability of the technology.
This got me to thinking about technology in government use and how we need to ensure that the solutions we put into place are not exclusionary to a portion of our customer base.
Some would say that the increased use of technology for self-service types of transactions is exclusionary by nature. I disagree. I believe it is how the technology is employed that determines its inclusiveness/exclusiveness. Lets take Web-based services for example. For every function that we can offer as self-service via the Web, we will have two groups of people those that will make use of the opportunity for self service and those who can't or won't. Unlike the airlines, who see the incorporation of self-service technology as a way to reduce personnel costs, government should first see that the time gains for personnel is a way to provide better/more personal service to those who do not take advantage of the technology. In this light, the use of technology for self-service is a win-win for both sets of consumers.
While it is important for all businesses and industry to think about their customer when employing technology to service them, it is crucial for government to do so. This consideration should be integral to every decision that is made where there is a possibility of customer interaction. Consider the decision to "only support IE version 6 or higher" for your Web site. I know more than one organization that has made this its policy regarding Web content. While a seemingly innocent business decision at first blush, this is a prime example of employing an exclusionary technology. Dont think this is a big deal? Ask FEMA what they think!According to the Washington Watch section in the October 15th, 2005 CIO magazine, FEMA had adopted this policy in regards to the ability to complete/access digital forms for applying for assistance if you were a victim of hurricane Katrina. Because its phone lines were swamped, it was extremely difficult to access FEMA with anything other than a computer. However, much to their dismay, Mac and Linux users found themselves unable to complete the forms online. While this may be a small percentage of computer users, the point is that by choosing the exclusionary technology not only did FEMA frustrate some of its customers during a time of crisis, but it gave itself a public black eye at a time when it could least afford it.
The same precautions apply regarding our own agencies' Web sites and their accessibility to the disabled. While we want our Web sites to have the same flashiness and sex appeal as commercial Web sites, we do need to keep in mind that we should (or in some cases must) be accessible to the disabled. This can be an extreme challenge at times and should always be a point in any Web design specification. The decisions involving accessibility can be numerous and can involve creating alternate content or deciding not to use particular Web technologies. Although I have mentioned it before, a good starting place for Web site accessibility decisions is the Web Accessibility Initiative of the W3C whose Web site you can reach at http://www.w3.org/WAI/Resources.
In summary, while it is important for government to employ technology to make interaction with it faster and easier, every technology introduction must take into consideration those who are unwilling or unable to take advantage of it. For those customers, alternate equitable means need to be part of the plan in order to accommodate their needs.
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