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24-hour public authorities - "The future of public service"

By Richard Whitehand, June 2002

In the future Swedish citizens and companies will be able to carry out their business with different public authorities in a much quicker and simpler manner, or at least this is the goal that the Swedish government has with its current "24-hour public authorities" project. Behind the project is a vision of shared information between different authorities and the ability for people to be able to contact authorities electronically at any time of day.

The web sites of different authorities will naturally have a significant role to play as different public "e-services" are developed. Statskontoret (the Swedish Agency for Public Management) have therefore recently published guidance for the "24-hour web", aimed at supporting those responsible for web sites at different public authorities.

One important area addressed by the guidelines is that of 'User-orientation', which deals with overall principles of usability and user-centred design. Four overall guidelines are set out, and these are:

  1. Organise the web site based on user needs
  2. Use the user
  3. Adapt form, content and structure to suit visitor characteristics and needs
  4. Endeavour to present content in different forms adapted to different user groups.

A central theme in these guidelines is that of the importance of early and repeated user tests. The guidelines also give references for further sources of information, and other more specific guidelines then go on to cover more detailed design issues.

Worth noting is that when the guidelines refer to "user tests" then they mean proper usability testing, and give references to such methods. Unfortunately some public authorities (as well as commercial organisations) rely rather too heavily on "focus groups" and "user panels" as ways of testing their designs and involving users, which can lead to unfortunate results (see our March 2002 editiorial). Lets hope these guidelines help to steer organisations towards methods which are more appropriate for an interactive medium.

Whilst the guidelines emphasize the importance of early user involvement and user testing, they are not quite so clear about ascertaining user requirements prior to initial design work. Testing is of course important, but there has to be something to test!

Initial designs (even if quite rough) should be based on a thorough understanding of requirements that have been gathered from actual end users (or at least a representative sample of them). All too often designs can be based more on what organisations think the users want, rather than what is actually needed!

The guidance booklet (in Swedish) can be ordered from Statskontoret - ISBN 91-7220-490-7.

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