Really? The Most Important?
I understand it's a high claim to say that usability is the single most important factor in choosing government software. But hear me out. When you're looking at various apps that will solve your problems, they're often already positioned with your market in mind. Often, when comparing feature lists, they're only going to vary slightly from each other. When a piece of software is ill-suited to the market, you learn pretty quickly in the first demo. You'll ask questions, compare it against the other apps you're looking at and you'll be able to tell whether it meets the bar, features-wise.
But so often what happens in government software and in enterprise software in general, is that you don't really know how easy an app is to use until your team has kicked the tires on it for a while. All the features in the world are useless if you can't easily figure out how to use them. So time goes by and you and your entire staff are stuck with a software solution that doesn't solve a thing. It's a waste of money and a huge waste of your time.
So yes, we stand by the statement that usability is the most important factor, all other things being equal.
What Does it Mean to Be Usable?
User-friendly is a term every single software vendor throws around like it's a given. But designing usable software is actually one of the hardest things a company does. You know this is true instinctively because of how much frustrating software we've all used over the years. And if you think it's frustrating for you, imagine what it's like for me. I've been designing award-winning popular software for over 25 years and I have zero tolerance for badly-designed software. Just ask my wife and she'll tell you how often I rant about this problem.
In order to truly design usable software, you have to spend a lot of time with your customers. You have to sit in silence and watch them use what you've designed. Often times, in my field, this means designing a series of low-fidelity prototypes and sitting down with customers and watch them try to understand what you've built. This is the number one way to achieve true software usability. As soon as you observe that the customers are breezing through your prototype, then you know you're getting somewhere. Only then do you build the real thing.
This is how we built ZipFlow. We went through many iterations of user testing, demos, etc. to arrive at the user-friendly interface our customers know and love.
Impact on Existing Staff
So what kind of impact does usability have on government staff? A big one is clarity. When the software you use makes it crystal clear what the current status is and what the next step is, then you can make better decisions. There's a huge cost to making decisions on bad information. And often in software, the information is in there somewhere. But if it's not readily available to you, it might as well not exist.
Another big impact of usable software is it makes you the expert. Nothing is worse than when you're working with the public and you come across looking like a buffoon. Great software amplifies the expertise you have because you know where to go for answers.
Finally, truly user-friendly software empowers you to get more done with less. A big reason for this is that it stops tech support calls from the public in their tracks. Not only has ZipFlow proven to be easy for staff, we regularly get comments from our customers who pass along the accolades they hear from the public who use ZipFlow as well. This means less fielding the same phone and email questions over and over and more getting actual work done.
Impact on Future Staff
This is where usable software really pays for itself in the long run. We all know that staff changes can be disruptive to a government organization. Imagine that on top of everything, that you also have to train the new person on complicated software. So now you're a tech support person for the public and your own staff. Obvious, easy-to-use software is a joy because if it's easy for citizens, it's also easy for your staff. At ZipFlow, we make all of this even easier by making the interface largely the same for both applicants and the government staff.
Impact on Software Quality
Ok, bear with me for a minute on this because this is actually a bigger deal than it may seem. One of the guiding principles we use here at ZipFlow is what's called the Pareto principle (or 80/20 rule). We try to build only the 20% of features that satisfy 80% of the market. We do this because when you develop features no one uses, it makes for a much more complicated system. This has a direct impact on usability yes, but also on overall quality because the more features you have to support, the more opportunity there is for bugs to arise.
By keeping the software simple and easy-to-use, you're naturally making it more resilient to issues down the road. ZipFlow isn't trying to be everything to every customer. We handle most things for typical planning and building departments. Every once in a while, we get a potential customer that asks for some one-off feature. We usually say no because it doesn't serve the rest of our customers and the need for usable, performant software. These things are inextricably connected.
We get excited every time we get to demo ZipFlow to potential customers. They just instantly understand what we've built and why it's special. Usable software is HARD. You can't just trip into it. It has to be intentionally done. The first time. The next time you're evaluating ANY software, ask if you can get a sandbox that will let you kick the tires in a real way. If they say no, it's probably because they're hiding something. Vendors love selling beater cars that are dressed up to look like Ferraris in the demo. Do your homework.