One thing I have learnt over the years working on sites like Big Brother and rushTV with hundreds of thousands of active users is that no matter how much time you spend fine-tuning the basics it’s the edge cases that cause you most problems.
So… why not turn it around and make sure you define the problem and then focus on optimizing the user experience and workflow around the edge case and maybe you’ll end up with a pretty good solution for everyone?
For web design a lot of the outliers are going to be around usability – optimizing colors and contrast, ease of navigation and captions for audio content etc. For the real world the challenge gets a little more interesting.
At the moment I’m dealing with two examples of processes where rather than keep usable workflow front of mind they have accreted layers of complexity over time and no-one wants to touch it for fear of unearthing a monster.
The first is the US immigration process to go from an E-3 to H-1B and then Green Card. Rather than try and explain that particular problem I’d simply point you to this flowchart (just for the Green Card application) and ask if it’s rational or even fair for people stuck in the process (some steps can take years even if all the paperwork is in order)
The immigration process is, by necessity, a complex one but when you look at how the system functions today – with a lot of uncertainty for those stuck in it – you have to wonder just what inefficiencies and loopholes exist that are costing the country money and not protecting its borders in any meaningful way.
The other process that’s familiar to people almost everywhere, but particularly topical here in the US at the moment – Taxes.
I don’t want to single out just the IRS here. While the US has one of the largest tax bases in the world, and certainly a pretty complex set of legislation around it it’s the third country where I’ve lived long enough to be a regular tax payer and I have to say the problem is a common one.
In the US there is mandatory reporting – based on your social security number – from employers, banks, investment houses etc to the IRS to document taxable income. Your mortgage details are reported back along with most of the data used to calculate your tax liability. Yet every year there’s a panic as people hunt through drawers and shoeboxes to find all the bits of paper they need to complete their tax returns. For the rich and corporations there’s the annual game of how many loopholes can they find to squirrel away income they should be reporting. All of this costs the country money, both in the effort of chasing the papertrail but also in the missed revenue thanks to misuse of the myriad ways to avoid minimize paying a fair due.
Now one solution might be a move to fair tax or similar schemes but a less drastic step could be to focus on making things better for the edge case and make the all-up process simpler for the majority of users.
The IRS is already collecting the information over the year, so why not simply have them mail out a statement (or better make it available online for those who can connect that way). If you agree and don’t have any deductions which the system doesn’t know about then sign the form and wait for your refund (or pay what you owe). If there’s something missing or wrong then have a simple process to document and appeal. Ideally during the year it would be possible to query what was being reported and confirm that things are tracking correctly to avoid surprises due to paperwork errors at year end.
For many people this would still require the use of a CPA or tax agent, but it would at least reduce the onus on individuals to deal with such a papertrail and create new opportunities for taxation professionals to operate in a much less seasonal way. Hardly surprisingly though companies like H&R Block lobby very hard to avoid any sort of reform no matter what good it will do for the country or individuals.
By streamlining the process you can then begin a systematic review of the process to close loopholes and reduce the opportunity for evasion.
Net result of focusing on the edge cases … more revenue collected, less pain for the average “user” and a chance for meaningful incremental reforms