Governments around the world are digitizing more of their services. The result is that the way people experience public services is increasingly through an app or a website. The hope is that this leads to a better experience for citizens while saving money in the process, but it carries with it an additional effect: as otherwise abstract government policies manifest themselves as pixels on citizen’s phones, small design choices can have big impacts on how people access and understand services.
As immigration solicitor, Jonathan Kingham, notes in this article on the digitization of Brexit era immigration systems in the UK:
Unlike with Rules and legislation changes, there was little opportunity to scrutinise the detail of what are in fact significant changes to the immigration system prior to their coming into force (bar selective ‘user testing’, which is rarely transparent to all). And, as with so many tech developments, as the process or ‘app’ itself increasingly takes centre stage over the content (in this case the law) that underpins it, there are risks.¹
The impact of small changes like this is not an isolated concern. In the US, the design of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ digital assistant ‘Emma’ has been the subject of study by Miriam Sweeney and Melissa Villa-Nicholas. The researchers from the University of Alabama and the University of Rhode Island have documented usage and changes in language and imagery, investigating what effects these might have on how Latinx communities understand how data collected by the service is used.²
Seeking out screen-shots of government software is also increasingly becoming a human rights monitoring activity. Recently, The Insider ran a story about the reality of women in Saudi Arabia living ‘Absher’, the digital manifestation of the country’s ‘guardian laws’. And a recent analysis of China’s national-level Social Credit system used screen-shots to illustrate the reality of the system’s ‘black-lists’ and ‘red-lists’.³ ⁴
It’s not just the design of government services that can have important effects though. Commercial platforms are playing ever more important roles in society, but the ways they explain to users how data is used often remain opaque and shifting.
For example, when the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke there were few definitive screen-shots of how Facebook had explained to people what would happen when they allowed a third party quiz to access their account. (Security and privacy researcher Maritza Johnson did manage to find an archived screen-shot from the approximate time).⁵
The rise of the gig economy means that design changes are making themselves felt in people’s work life too. When Amazon redesigned its gig-worker Mechanical Turk platform in 2017, the MTurk Crowd forum, where workers exchange tips and news, was full of questions about what the changes meant for them.⁶
Another private sector example is the investigation recently published by ProPublica where they analyze the design of the tax filing service TurboTax. In it ProPublica argue that the design choices made by the company make it hard for citizens to find a free version of the software, that they are legally entitled to access to file their taxes.⁷
These examples start to show how the design choices made by governments and companies have real effects on people’s lives, and how documenting such changes can improve public debate.
A public archive of the user interfaces for important digital services could help enable more of this type of activity.
Such an archive could act as a resource for researchers, journalists and others looking to understand the impacts of design changes on the public realm. This will require an organization (or organizations) with the resources, and the digital capability, to curate and analyze such an archive.
Ideally, such an organization would make use of automated software testing tools like Selenium (although there may be legal issues accessing some services in this way). It would also allow digital teams designing services to automatically submit the latest designs as part of their build pipeline, and make ad hoc submissions.
This is not a new idea.
Form design specialists like Caroline Jarrett have long been documenting and critiquing the design of digital and paper forms, and the University of Reading Forms Information Unit maintains a historical archive of printed forms.
Archive.org, and the national archives of various countries maintain archives of digital content, and the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project actively monitors for changes in content about subjects like immigration and healthcare.
What would (appear to) be new, is the systematic capture of the design of complete user journeys and how they change over time.
Following the lead of the University of Reading archive of paper forms, an academic institution or library feels like a natural home for such an initiative.
- Jonathan Kingham, “Computer says no: facing up to the full implications of a digitised immigration system”, Free Movement, 8th January 2019, https://www.freemovement.org.uk/computer-says-no-digitised-immigration-system/
- digitalHKS, “Cultural Affordances of “Emma”, USCIS’s Latina Virtual Assistant”, Vimeo, 19th April 2019, https://vimeo.com/331443862
- Bill Bostock, “Saudi Arabia runs a huge, sinister online database of women that men use to track them and stop them from running away”, Insider, 1st February 2019, https://www.thisisinsider.com/absher-saudi-website-men-control-women-stop-escape-2019-1
- Severin Engelmann, Mo Chen, Felix Fischer, Ching-Yu Kao and Jens Grossklags, “Clear Sanctions, Vague Rewards: How China’s Social Credit System Currently Defines ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Behavior”, 2019, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330272009_Clear_Sanctions_Vague_Rewards_How_China’s_Social_Credit_System_Currently_Defines_Good_and_Bad_Behavior
- Maritza Johnson (@maritzajohnson), “I’m curious when the Cambridge researchers used the FB API to slurp up all that data. This was the permission dialog around 2011, that line about “Access my friends’ data” does not communicate much about the implications of clicking allow. Nor does “Access my data at any time””, Twitter, 17th March 6:41 PM, https://mobile.twitter.com/maritza_johnson/status/975079773536948231
- “WORKER IS COMING! Discussion Mega Thread!”, MTurk Crowd, https://www.mturkcrowd.com/threads/worker-is-coming-discussion-mega-thread.2873/. Retrieved 10th Mary 2019.
- Justin Elliott and Lucas Waldron, “Here’s How TurboTax Just Tricked You Into Paying to File Your Taxes”, ProPublica, 22nd April 2019, https://www.propublica.org/article/turbotax-just-tricked-you-into-paying-to-file-your-taxes
- See “My new favourite form. Really.” http://www.effortmark.co.uk/my-new-favourite-form-really/ and “Why users don’t complain about bad forms” http://www.effortmark.co.uk/users-dont-complain-bad-forms/ for examples
- The Forms Information Unit does not have an online presence, but I have confirmed with the university that it still exists.
- Sunlight Labs, “Web Integrity Project”, https://sunlightfoundation.com/web-integrity-project/. Retrieved 5th May 2019.