Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

User Interface for a Government Service

Published: 27 Mar 2014

This is a second post about a User Interface Bill of Rights, thinking out loud. The first post was about a trivial experience, trying to get a landline from Verizon and being flummoxed by a web interface that should have been a simple sequence of information, selections and forms. This post is motivated by a far moreserious recent experience, one that could easily have ruined my life.

The details don't matter much. We made a relatively trivial and harmless error on a form, an honest mistake. The consequence as reported from some could have been loss of everything physical, all futures in the US and permanent exile.

The Offending Agencies

The two agencies concerned with the example problem.

Citizenship and Immigration Service is one agency; they issue paper with remarkably subtle nuance and conditions. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is another agency, basically cops who enforce the nuance of the paper. We found CBP generally unfranchised clerks-with-guns and some to be thugs, both intent on finding the worst possible interpretation. Together, these two agencies are larger than CIA and FBI put together!

Most US citizens will encounter the first only when obtaining a passport, and the second only when passing through an international airport. But some substantial percentage of folks will have problems of one kind or another. I could not find numbers, though I am sure they exist somewhere and are in the millions.

We had to bring extraordinary and costly influence to the problem to break a circular loop in the law.

Now, for the purposes of this blog post, let's assume that US immigration law is informed, logically based, not racist and so on. Let's assume for simplicity that the intent of those 85,000 CBP/CIS people is in the genuine interest of citizens. And also let's assume that any deficiencies in what I call the user interface are not a deliberate conspiracy of some sort, but simple incompetence. Further, let's accept that there is some meaningful inherent quality that is bestowed by the geography of birth (and little else).

Some Counterexamples

Three examples of systems that work.

I am absolutely convinced that government can work well with human values and pleasant business, even what is disparaged as big government. In the past year, I had three encounters with different agencies. In each case, I had a problem like the visa one which I can characterize as we don't have a form for that.

The details of these don't quite matter either. What matters is how they were handled.

The US Consolate in Sydney, the Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles, the Social Security Administration all require forms. In a sense, you bring them certain paper to support the process of them giving you some other desired paper. In each of my three encounters, some Catch-22 occurred. For example, the DMV case is the simplest.

I bought a car from a dealer and traded in the old one, signing over the title in a process that lets me reuse the old plates. When I go to finalize some paperwork, the dealer's clerk won't take the old title because it was a company car of my one man company, and not 'mine.' I was to go to DMV and have the title transferred to me, and then the paperwork could proceed.

DMV advised that to transfer a car from a company, you need a meeting of the directors allowing it, certified by the state corporation commission. No matter that I have proof that I am the only director, the process must be followed. But alas, the company now has no title to assign! It left me because I signed it over, and it went to no one, entering an ownership limbo.

But at the DMV, the woman pushed the forms aside and said, "this is how we are going to fix this," and simply re-issued the original title for $25 and new plates in ten minutes.

No form existed for this, no prefab procedure, only common sense. It was well within her ability to see the problem and within reason fix it, once she knew there it wasn't a scam. The other examples are similar in structure: a limbo of state where no form existed, but the problem solved by common sense and some forms-assisted investigation.

The Role of Forms

The problem of data as the process itself.

I'm taking these experiences apart by separating the role of data from the action or process.

In the three good cases, copious forms were required. They usually were traditional forms where slots required values, lots of slots. Then they were conveyed by some means to a human. The human used the forms as an efficient way to understand the issue at hand. In my three good examples, the forms were informative rather than prescriptive.

If a form entry was unclear or otherwise ineffective at the task, the interviewer could simply ask and get the information that way; no penalty accrued. Then, depending on the task, that person makes a decision and triggers some action, duly recorded on some next generation paper. It should be noted here that the chain is:

  • incoming forms,
  • human consideration,
  • entirely different outgoing paper.

This is a two-level user interface. One interface produces data in a standard form for a task. A second interface clarifies and acts. The first is paper-centric, the second human interaction. Having a human in the loop in this way is costly in some ways:

  • logistics require that time and place be arranged
  • you'll require more people than if the process were automatic
  • the people involved need to have empathy, authority and problem solving skills. I presume that's rare.
  • they will need to work in a team setting that is supportive of their decisions.

But I am supposing that the real cost to a government system is in not doing things efficiently. If some hapless person gets involved in a bureaucratic nightmare, too bad for them. But too bad for the agency as well, because needlessprocess costs money and saps energy.

In a former life, we looked at a similar problem with defense acquisition. These guys are the biggest buyers of stuff in the world. They buy the most complicated stuff in the world. Life and death is part of the business.

The systems we audited (combat aircraft and missiles) cost four times what they could have if what I'll call here the UI between buyer and seller were less prescriptively forms-driven and more tailored to the need. The requirement to avoid fraud could be handled by transparency and accountability, both massively lacking.

Transparency instead of minute regulation would have saved about a trillion dollars since our DARPA studies, almost enough to pay for one of our Cheney wars or alternatively eradicating maybe three major diseases.

Our Visa Experience

What happened to us, and how it motivates the general concern.

Our visa experience may have been colored by the Administration's need to satisfy the crazier guys in Congress that the US is tough and vigilant. That probably colors the whole agency, but in our particular case, I think it is a simpler matter; for every transaction across the border, two agencies are involved.

The interface between these agencies is exclusively via paper with no ambiguity allowed beyond what can be represented. Every situation is partly controlled in two camps and no one camp has visibility into the other. The only communication is via user-generated forms.

This extends then to the UI between each agency and the public. Forms are not data that advises a decisionmaker; forms are the decision. If you make a typo, if you misremember a fact, if you reduce a complex situation to the wrong one-word choice, you lose. This is a recipe for disaster.

But there are other factors as well. Immigration law is not coherent. Legislators keep adding things as self contained worlds. So the policy, procedure and resulting forms for example for West African children of conflict are different from those of, say economic immigrants from Indonesia. There are historical cells as well, so that a process that would logically be a single process is broken into two or more, each with its own form.

For example, consider the application for Green Card for the spouse of a citizen. This is a process that I expect millions of people a year go through. Here are the forms:

I-130 from the citizen spouse saying he/she is married; I-485 from the petitioning spouse saying he/she wants a green card; G-325a from each, being a biographic summary, repeating material elsewhere reported; I-131 asking to not be forbidden from travel; plus others: I-765, I-134, I-693, G-1145, biometrics, interview, a couple thousand dollars...

There is no place that lists these for you, which is why we missed one. There is no reason that all the numbered forms cannot be combined. None, other than I suppose they go to different clerks.

Many of these forms require you to answer questions like whether you are filing under Section 215(b)(1), but with no way to research just what that means. (We can DuckDuckGo it, to see what others think that is, but that is unreliable.)

But the most annoying part of the process is that some forms are intended to do things they are not advertised to do. That I-131 that asks permission to travel? The instructions say that it is for medical emergencies and the like only. But depending who you talk to, it is wink wink nudge nudge okay to ask to be with family for the holidays.

The instructions talk about severe limits; you have to say when you will travel and for how long, for instance. But again, winkwink, if you apply we will grant your travel retroactively (but not say anything on the record). In other words, the primary purpose of the form as currently used forces you to lie in a way that could result in prison. But hey, this is okay because you need some paper, right? Jail or deportation if you get the form; jail or deportation if you don't, and they get to choose.

This is all a matter of user interface design in my mind.

Extracted Lessons for a UI Bill Of Rights

A first guess about what we would need for enlightened user interface.

I'll write a separate post on this once I have mulled it over.

For now, I have two thoughts brewing.

I think it essential that a UI allow you to negotiate early with the system to determine what the nature of your narrative is. If you are trying to do some business, you likely don't want surprises. But if you are involved in a social interaction or entertainment, you likely do want some engaging novelty. Probably, this means you should have the option of stepping out of the process and seeing the big picture somehow. You need to know what story you are building or participating in.

In the visa example, our desired story was that we wanted to follow the law, but had no way to know what that was. (Different lawyers had different advice!)

Separately, there needs to be an explicit contract about what is being used for what. This is larger than the forms-as-process problem, but it subsumes it. Possibly this can be combined with the above in terms of metapresentation, but it seems an entirely different issue to me. It sits firmly in my NSA/Google concern.

I'll cook on this. These rights would be for any UI, whether a game that hides in-app purchase smarm, an essay composition environment, an e-commerce interface, anything. Possibly even many things beyond screen functional design. And I think they really do need to be considered as rights, whether dealing with business interactions, the NSA constitutional crisis or health information.

Some specifics. My partner is Australian. We have two kids, 1 and 2. We got married.

Following the law, we notified the authorities, in this case Citizenship and Immigration Service (CIS). They had us file for a Green Card. Following another law, administered by Customs and Border Control (CBP), we left the country under terms of her existing visa, returning according to the rules. Turns out these laws conflict. We should have gotten something called an advanced parole that no one mentioned.

The effect was that the prior visa vanishes, no new visa or equivalent can be issued. There is no recourse, no fine, no apology, no process to fix this. Apparently, 30,000 people a year make this error because of what I will call bad UI. Our case was further complicated because she is nursing a citizen, so the normal routine of immediate deportation was luckily curtailed, but in the process created a deeper limbo.

© copyright Ted Goranson, 2014