User Experience is a Social Justice Issue

Sumana Harihareswara at code4lib: “…Before I worked in open source, I worked in customer service. I saw first-hand how design flaws (in architecture, signage, and websites) could frustrate and drive away customers and make more work for me. Every time I participated in an open source project — AltLaw, GNOME, MediaWiki, and more — I’ve brought that experience with me. I found it particularly striking that small changes on Wikipedia could cause large changes in user behavior, as I discuss in this essay, which is adapted from my keynote speech.
This issue goes beyond software, as I explain with the healthcare and banking examples. The spark that caused me to write the speech was reading Professor Lisa J. Servon’s piece in The Atlantic about the usability of storefront check cashing services; I saw a pattern where poor user experience repels people from crucial and empowering services, and decided, in a flash of anger and inspiration, to write “User Experience is a Human Rights Issue.”…

The Last Mile Problem

The largest hurdles we as technologists face are choosing to make the right things in the first place and choosing to make them usable. In the 1990’s, telecommunications companies laid down a lot of fiber to connect big hubs to one another, but often it took years to connect those hubs to the actual houses and schools and shops and offices, because it was expensive, or because companies were not creative enough to do it well. This is called the “last mile problem,” and I think usability has a similar problem. We have to be creative and disciplined enough to actually provide services in a way that people can use them.
When we’re building services for people, we often have a lot more practice seeing things from the computer’s point of view or from the data’s point of view than from another person’s point of view. In tech, we understand how to build arteries better than we understand how to build capillaries. Personally, I think capillaries are more interesting than arteries. Maybe it’s just personal temperament, but I like all the little surprising details of how people end up experiencing the ripple effects of big new systems, and how users actually interact with the user interface of a service, especially ones that we don’t really think of as having a user interface. Like taxes, or healthcare, or hotels. All these big systems end in little capillaries, where people exchange information or get healed or get whatever they need. And when those capillaries aren’t working correctly, then those people just don’t get what they need. The hubs are connected to each other, but people aren’t connected to the hubs.
Over and over, in lots of different fields, we see that bad usability makes a huge difference. When choosing between two services, people will make very different choices, depending on which service actually seems designed around the user’s needs….(More)”