In the late 1990s, word around the internet was that web search was pretty much a closed book. The search engine du jour was a site named Alta Vista, and it’s where nearly everyone went to get their searching done. They needed to productize and monetize their site, and so their search page started growing ads and portal features and flashing ads and animated ads… it was said that advertisers could even pay to influence the placement of search results. Alta Vista had to, right? Else how could they stay open, let alone make any money?
Along came Google. It worked as well as Alta Vista. Its search page was astonishingly simple: little more than a logo, a search box, and two buttons (do youfeel lucky?). Most home internet users were still on dial-up, and they found that they could go to Google and have their search results in hand before the Alta Vista page even finished loading. Alta Vista needn’t worry, though: how could Google ever survive without ads on its search page? As it turns out, Google sold billions of dollars in ads, and Alta Vista is a footnote. Alta Vista didn’t get it: “we’ll make more money by forcing our customers to view obnoxious ads.” Google got it: “we’ll serve our customers well, and most of them won’t mind a bit that we’re displaying unobtrusive ads along with what they want.” The people at AV were neither evil nor incompetent, they just didn’t get it. The now-billionaires at Google did.
What brought all this to mind was my experience yesterday trying to register Joshua for kindergarten. The experience was… suboptimal.
It was widely announced that registrations would take place in early February. So why was I there on January 8th? Because the schedule was changed, with no fanfare. How did I know to be there? Someone on a neighborhood email list noticed the change and was kind enough to post it.
Let’s say that I wanted to be obsessively proactive, and decided to check the San Juan School District web site every day in case they changed the schedule? I wouldn’t be able to because their web site violates a well-known dictum of web site design: they require that you have a commercial browser extension (Adobe Flash) installed just to do basic navigation of the site. Sorry, iPhone users. Sorry, security-conscious users (Flash is a notorious security hole). Sorry, those who work behind corporate firewalls that wisely block Flash. Sorry, those who won’t install Flash because it’s so often used to foul their screens with intrusive animated advertising. Sorry, disabled persons using assistive software. You can’t get to the SJUSD web site because the site designers didn’t consider your needs. They didn’t get it.
Enter the sprawling SJUSD compound on Walnut and you’re immediately struck: they don’t get it. Nothing to help visitors (customers!) figure out where to park or where to go. Plenty of signs that say “EMPLOYEE ENTRANCE”. Force me to do what you want (“DON’T COME IN HERE”) instead of helping me do what I want (“Please use the entrance around the corner.”). I passed fifteen, fifteen, “DON’T DO THAT” signs before, with the help of some friendly employees leaving via one of the forbidden entrances, I found the main entrance. Did I mention that it was raining? And when I got to the main entrance, a sign taped to the inside of a tinted-glass door (if you saw it, you could almost read it) directed me “across the parking lot.”
After walking across the vast compound I arrive at the broom closet. In contrast to the waiting area where vendors and administrative visitors sit in airy, quiet, carpeted, overstuffed luxury, the broom closet, where the customers wait, is wall-to-wall people with a few hard chairs and a dirty floor. There are signs printed on copier paper up at a desk you can elbow your way to, but they’re mostly of the “DO NOT” variety. I like to think that I’m a reasonably bright, and fairly well educated, but I don’t know the difference between “signing up” and “registering” and “enrolling” and “reserving.” I wasn’t exactly sure if I was there for “open enrollment” or what my “home school” was (no, I want him in the public school!).
Google doesn’t tell you that “you can force boolean AND inclusion of search terms by prepending a plus sign to quoted search terms,” even though that would be an efficient and concise way to communicate the information to insiders. Google gets it: they’re talking to their customers, not to insiders.
One sign suggested using the computers provided (hooray?) to make sure your DMV records were up-to-date. I elbowed my way over to one of the computers, wondering why nobody was using them at least for entertainment during the waiting, but when I got to the machine it had a Windows sign-on message and wouldn’t function without a password. Was anyone able to give me a password? Why, no.
“Wait!” you say.”If the schedule change was so poorly publicized, how did all those other people know to be there?” Alas, by far the most common interaction I observed was people being told that they were in the wrong place, on the wrong day, for the wrong thing. (Nice to see you, Pastor Ivan, I hope you can figure out the right place and time — I’ll let you know if I ever get any inside information.)
I took heart from the fact that I was the second person on the sign-in list, and was told that they would call me in “a few minutes.” Twenty-five minutes later, I was still the second person on the sign-in list.
I did get called eventually. Once in the office, the director and her assistant were patient, understanding, attentive, well-informed, and helpful. I couldn’t help but think that they would be horrified at the ordeal I had been through to get to them. I wondered, too, how many people had reached their wits’ end, and unloaded on these kind folks, who by all appearances were diligent and hard-working. I wondered if they just thought that much of humanity must be mean-spirited or impatient. As they cheerfully told me about how the computers in the waiting room could have been helpful to me, I considered telling them the story. They were working hard, though, and others were waiting, and they’re probably not in a position to change what needs changing. I decided to go with the flow, and choose another time and approach for making things better.
I never did find out if I was registering or enrolling or signing up, but what it amounted to was this: they answered a handful of questions that, it seems, could easily have been in a FAQ on the web site. Then they made an appointment for me to register, enroll, or sign up — whichever I hadn’t done that day. I had taken two hours off work, driven 15 miles, taken up a parking space, and made a crowded waiting room even more crowded, all for the purpose of making an appointment eight weeks hence that could trivially have been made on line or by telephone. Getting it, in this case, would have saved the district space and wear on their facility. It would have saved the personnel who had to cope with my presence. It would have eliminated whatever environmental damage is caused by driving fifteen miles. It would have given four more people access to their doctor that day. Is there any downside to getting it?
It would be easy to blame the problem on tight budgets and overworked personnel. Would it cost the district more to put a helpful FAQ on the web site than to have people in the office on the phones giving the same answers over and over and over? (Perhaps there is a helpful FAQ on the web site, but I didn’t find it and neither had dozens of the people in the waiting room yesterday.) The cost of processing a single call is astronomical compared to the cost of serving a web page. Would it cost any more to make signs that said “<– public entrance” rather than ones that said “EMPLOYEE ENTRANCE”? They invested in computers, tables, workstation support, printers, and chairs — would it really increase their costs to make those resources available to their intended audience instead of blocking them off with a password nobody knows? Removing the superfluous Flash menus from the web site would actually save the district money. The district employs hundreds of people whose knowledge of the signup/enrollment/registration/open/home process more closely matches mine. I’ll bet bunches of them have even signed up/enrolled/registered/open enrolled/home schooled their own children. What’s cheaper, listening to one of them (or me) for a moment, or continuing to have to have staff deal with confused, frustrated, anxious, and disappointed parents? What will it cost the district (and us!) to handle the hordes of parents who show up next month, when they were told to, to sign-up, enroll, whatever because they didn’t know about the schedule change?
Getting it makes sense, but it isn’t easy. It often means moving outside our comfort zone, or trying to see things from the perspective of those whom we’re likely to think of as the problem rather than the solution. Even when we consciously work to get it, it isn’t easy. I know I sometimes use medical jargon with my patients when I should be speaking in lay terms. I know that I could do more to reduce anxiety in my waiting room. I know that some of the forms I ask patients to understand and sign are incomprehensible. Perhaps SJUSD is struggling hard to create an atmosphere amenable to change, and I’m just too myopic to see it. If so, more power to them. Any of us who work in a world where casual outsiders have to interact with us insiders owe it to them, and to ourselves, to constantly fight the tendency to focus on our own needs at the expense of theirs. The results benefit everyone.
— Ron – 09 Jan 2010