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Indian e-Government Initiative: An Ideal Case for Universal Usability

Indian Scenario / Article 5.

First published in March 2007

Author: Dr. Dinesh Katre

At the outset of this deliberation on Indian e-Governance initiative, it is necessary to emphasize that our intentions are constructive and very positive. The idea is to identify opportunities for further improvement; the objective is to see how common citizens be benefited through this effort; and maximize the Returns On Investment (ROI).

1. The Missing Focus on Design for Usability

The recommendations issued by National Knowledge Commission of India or the standards being developed for e-governance mainly focus technical aspects, which is very important. But at the same time, we should also notice that the fundamental issues like User Centred Design (UCD) and Usability are not covered adequately. The quality standards for e-governance cover limited aspects like documentation, interoperability, network, information security, metadata, localization, etc. Accessibility of e-government services is considered only from the connectivity point of view. In this context what Shneiderman [2000] categorically points out is very relevant- accessibility and standards are not sufficient to ensure successful usage. The usability survey on India’s state government web portals [2006] reveals several design deficiencies and lack of technical maturity.

Despite investing so much on building e-goverment systems, the basic questions still remain to be addressed-
a. How will the citizens figure out the use of e-government system?
b. Will they be able to understand the procedures to obtain services?
c. Will they be able to comprehend the design of user interface?
d. Is localization adding further to obscurity?
e. Will they be satisfied with the functional behavior of system?
f. Will they get the desired output?
g. Will it fulfill their goals?
h. At what cost, time and effort?
i. After all the investments, has it made their life easy?
j. Will it take care of their security, privacy, safety concerns?
k. Will they feel empowered and independent?
l. How to ensure overall usability of the system?

….there are many more questions like these.

2. User Centric or Government Centric ?

The usability of e-government systems is indispensable if the vision of Simple, Moral, Accountable, Responsive and Transparent government had to become a reality. And shouldn’t the electronic systems be measured against the SMART parameters for purpose of validation? I came across the SMART definition of e-government on some Indian government website. Although the acronym SMART is very attractive, it is not sufficient to capture the essence of usability. Absolute fulfillment of user’s goal with ease, efficiency and effectiveness are at the nucleus of Usability. These attributes define the quality for system design. On the contrary, the SMART attributes define the quality for government. So the SMART attributes are again keeping the Government at its centre and not the user or the citizen. This difference should be noted very clearly.

User Centred Design (UCD) approach requires you to design every aspect of the system through study, consultation and participation of the targeted user. In the current discussion, the users are Indian citizens and government agencies both. Practicing UCD approach as part of Product Development Life Cycle (PDLC) and its institutionalization has posed many challenges. New techniques, methods and processes need to be explored. Have we tried to confront these questions before planning huge investments for e-government? In my personal assessment, the answer is NO!

3. Lessons Not Learnt

In many e-government projects operational systems get developed but they fail to win acceptance from stakeholders due to major usability problems. This is quite true, as the World Bank has already reported that approximately 85% of e-governance projects in developing countries are failures; and only 15% can be seen as fully successes. The electronic solutions are implanted into government offices without catering to the transformational aspects (mental, organizational, working style, etc.) and providing the entire eco-system for long-term sustenance.
Usability is very critical in e-government, as even one usability problem can adversely affect millions of citizens, it can cost them time and money. Shouldn’t it be of paramount importance to the political establishments in India considering the magnitude of dissatisfaction or satisfaction that results out of non-usability or usability of e-governance? Year after year India is multiplying its budget allocation for e-governance with new projects and missions e.g., government of India is about to launch the Rs. 23,000 crore e-governance action plan, which will unfold in next 5 years. As per the rule of thumb 10% of the total resources should be spent on the process of User Centred Design, which can ensure the end outcome (usability and satisfaction of users). It will require upfront planning, comprehensive strategy and mechanisms for introducing UCD process at such massive scale.

4. Citizen Centric Design (CCD)

Most e-government systems are being built to exactly mimic the age-old conventional procedures. To my surprise, I have come across some online forms indicating the place for signature and thumb impression! Computerization of such procedures is in fact a golden opportunity to change them for greater efficiency and effectiveness. Participatory design techniques can be applied for involving the citizens in improving such lengthy procedures; their feedback and suggestions can be gathered for better analysis and design. The existing approach of User Centric Design (UCD) needs to be further evolved as Citizen Centric Design (CCD) especially for e-government. CCD approach should be defined so as to democratize the design of e-government procedures. Conversely, the e-government systems are getting designed and built in a pretty dictatorial mode and therefore resulting in dismal success rate.

5. Usability Audit

Performance and effectiveness measurement or periodic usability auditing of e-government systems is very important for validation of claims and continuous enhancement of design. If there is not even mention of usability in Indian e-government plans and projects then how could we expect something like ‘usability audit’ to be there? Many foreign countries are already practicing it.
In 2004, Dubai e-Government integrated the portals of 24 departments and engaged professional agencies for auditing the usability of these portals to ensure compliance with standards and ease of use for the citizens. They have been organizing several workshops to create awareness and sensitize the government departments about the importance of usability. St. Petersburg government websites in Russia have been already evaluated and audited on the parameters like functionality, accessibility and usability in 2004. UK Government is also reported to have performed usability audit for government websites. UK Cabinet Office found that 97% of official sites were unusable by disabled people, largely because they ignored well-known techniques for making data accessible, as per the BBC News report published in 2005. Australian government has also audited its websites for ensuring their accessibility and usability. On the other hand China has already defined its policy to promote inclusive design and Universal Usability. ISO is also developing a special website usability standard named Software ergonomics for World Wide Web user interfaces.

In short, the international scenario shows greater awareness and concern for usability in the e-governance domain compared to India. Everywhere the common experience about conformance to good-looking standards is poor execution. That seems to be the crux of the problem in India too. But unfortunately, usability and Citizen Centred Design (CCD) has not figured anywhere in Indian e-Governance planning, standards, best practices and development lifecycles. There is just no mention of it. Therefore, even if a system conforms to the so-called standards, it may not guarantee ease of use for the citizens.

6. Design for Universal Usability

Universal design, which is related to ‘inclusive design’ and design for all, is an approach to the design of products, services and environments to be usable by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation. It links directly to the political concept of an inclusive society and its importance has been recognized by governments, business and industry. In this, assistive technologies play an important role for the disabled users. This is a relatively new design paradigm and in my opinion very relevant to e-governance. It is important to mention that with the strong support from Department of Information Technology, Government of India; C-DAC has undertaken major language technology development initiative, which includes development of assistive technologies like text-to-speech, speech-to-text, translation systems for Indian languages. These technologies will lay the foundations for achieving the universal usability goal in the context of e-governance. C-DAC’s efforts, with its limited resources, also include ensuring usability of Indian languages over Internet and the extensions for semantic web in support of the World Wide Web Consortium.

India has approx. 400 million illiterate population. There are over 10 million blind persons in our country, the highest percentage in the world. There are some 6 million movement disabled and about 3 million mentally disabled people as per the 2001 census of India. Straight away it keeps out almost 50% of India’s population from availing the e-government services. Basic connectivity and infrastructure is another biggest impediment. Above all, the linguistic, socio-cultural and political diversities pose different challenges when it comes to designing user interfaces. Within the small proportion of literate and on-line citizens in India, many are unable to avail proper services from e-government portals or kiosks due to non-usability.

The user study for designing e-Government systems should include aspects like- human factors (cognitive and physical); age and gender based preferences; economic, historical, linguistic, social, cultural and political background; illiteracy (script and computer both), physical disabilities, environmental conditions, electricity and internet connectivity limitations, etc. Assistive user interfaces be designed and technology support be provided to address the wide range of user needs. Ignoring these aspects amounts to being discriminative and depriving many citizens from availing the rightful government services. Indian e-government initiative requires a much more encompassing vision, with an objective of universal design and usability for the citizens, if it has to truly serve and be successful.

7. References

1. Shneiderman Ben, Universal Usability, Communications of the ACM, May 2000/Vol.43. No. 5, pp. 84-91

2. Universal Usability (UU)
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.universalusability.org

3. Definition of Universal Design
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_design

4. Web Usability Standards
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.userfocus.co.uk/articles/ISO23973.html

5. Budhiraja Renu, Electronic Governance €“ A key issue in the 21st century
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.mit.gov.in/eg/article2.asp

6. Recommendations for e-governance by National Knowledge Commission of India
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.knowledgecommission.org/downloads/NKCRecommendationsEGovernance.pdf

7. E-Government, InTo IT, The Audit Office of New South, Wales, Australia,
pp. 18-21
URL Accessed in Jan 2007: http://www.nao.org.uk/intosai/edp/intoit_articles/17p20top23.pdf

8. Government sites fail disabled, News Report by BBC, 2005
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/4478702.stm

9. Golubeva A, Merkuryeva I, Shulakov N, DEVELOPMENT OF E-GOVERNMENT IN ST. PETERSBURG: EVALUATION OF WEB SITES PERFORMANCE AND USABILITY
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/NISPAcee/UNPAN020449.pdf

10. Dubai eGovernment to conduct usability audits
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.ameinfo.com/42994.html

11. Dinesh Katre, Usability Survey Report of Indian State Government Web Portals, HCI Vistas, Volume-I, 2006
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.hceye.org/HCIrony-KATRE7.htm

12. Disabled Population (2001 Census), Census of India Distribution of the disabled by type of disability€“ 2001
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.censusindia.net

13. Design for Inclusion: Creating a New Marketplace, National Council on Disability
URL Accessed in Jan 2007:
http://www.ncd.gov/newsroom/publications/2004/newmarketplace.htm

Dr. Dinesh Katre presently heads the National Multimedia Resource Centre of C-DAC, Pune, India. He is the principle designer of many software products that deal with digital library, cultural informatics, e-learning, multimedia authoring and computer game design. He has special interest in the cognitive study of technology users and behavioral design of products. Journal of HCI Vistas is his community building initiative. It is meant to promote research oriented, multi-disciplinary thinking in the field of Human-Computer Interaction in India. This e-publication is open for usability practitioners and UX designers to publish short articles.

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