Thursday, October 01, 2009

Adapt the service not the user

I've been rereading the ABC article about the two girls who got caught in a drain and used their mobile phone to update their Facebook status, rather than call Triple 0.

A representative of the Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) in Adelaide said that,
If they were able to access Facebook from their mobile phones, they could have called triple-0, so the point being they could have called us directly and we could have got there quicker than relying on someone being online and replying to them and eventually having to call us via triple-0 anyway.
Professor of Media and Communications at the Queensland University of Technology, Terry Flew, says public education campaigns are facing an ongoing struggle to compete with social media.

I think that the main point has been missed.

The internet and digital devices are changing cultural and personal behaviours. In some respects they are even changing our physical behaviour and may be changing our brain chemistry.

I don't believe that it is the role of Public Authorities to try to turn the clock back by 'competing' with social media - reinforcing messages such as if you're in trouble call triple-0 - just to preserve the 'way the system has always worked'.

In usability terms this is similar to releasing a human-unfriendly system, then producing a huge user manual and communications campaign to attempt to train people to work the way the system works (except in this case the system remains the same and it is people who have changed).

Often it is cheaper and more effective to turn this approach on its head. Re-engineer the system to work the way that people think.

Successful companies have learnt this. They change their products over time to suit emerging social and cultural norms. It's a Marketing-based approach, where the organisation figures out what people want and provides it, rather than a Communications-based approach, where you build products the way the organisation wants then try to convince people to accept them.

The lesson I draw from this emergency situation is that the public service are still grappling with the questions of whether and how to adapt their systems to suit their audiences.

For the girls down the drain it may have been faster for them to call Triple-0, however this wasn't the behaviour they are used to. It was not 'normal' in fact they've probably never done it before.

So why not adapt our emergency services instead?

Have a presence on social networks that people can use to contact them in emergencies.

Create smartphone apps that people can install and use to send the information the emergency services need to act.

Set up Twitter accounts that can be used to call for help.

Even simply point '911' to '000' so either number reaches our emergency services - most Australians hear '911' far more often in movies and on TV than they ever hear 'Triple-0'. The original rationale of '000' being less likely to be dialed in error due to being more difficult to call on dial phones has disappeared anyway with keypads.

Some of these avenues may be 'less efficient' for the system. They may increase the time required for emergency services to response.

However they will ensure that the emergency services CAN respond.

It may even increase the number of people who legitimately contact emergency services - those who wouldn't call Triple-0, but will put a note on Facebook that, for example, they are feeling suicidal.

Certainly checks and balances will need to be in place to prevent fraudulent use, but we managed to do it with a telephone number - surely we're smart enough to do this in other mediums.

The issue of adapting services versus adapting users isn't unique to emergency services, it affects every interaction between government and public.

Every time the government forces people to use the channel it prefers - be it telephone, paper, in-person (or even online) - it is attempting to adapt the user to suit its own processes and needs.

This can reduce citizen engagement, satisfaction and completion rates, resulting in poorer outcomes for individuals.

Instead the government should seek to understand how people prefer to engage and seek ways to adapt its services to suit peoples' needs. AGIMO's report, Australians' use and satisfaction with e-government services—2008, provides some ideas.

Sure there are many cases where it may be legally impossible to accept channels like the net for transactions with government. However there are many services where we can adapt - it just takes a little creative thinking. We may even save the public money or provide a faster service and we will not be 'competing' with social networks, we'll be leveraging them for public benefit.

Let's seek to change our public sector philosophies and adapt government policies and services wherever possible, rather than attempt to adapt our users to suit 'how we prefer to do things'.

1 comment:

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