By Shane Schick

Mistakes tend to cost time, money or both. When a small mistake means unemployed Canadians face a month’s wait for income they need to live, however, the burden of error falls squarely on the government.

Shane Schick, editor-in-chief, IT World Canada

On Thursday the Globe and Mail reported that if anyone applying for employment insurance (EI) through Service Canada puts a date for their last day of work that doesn’t exactly match the record of employment they got at their last job, “the computer will churn for 28 days in search of a direct match.”

The applicant, meanwhile, is left wondering where their next meal is going to come from, or worse. This is an online system that was launched five years ago and was supposed to improve service delivery. In response, the federal department of Human Resources says more automation at Service Canada will solve the problem. It’s hard to imagine it getting much worse.

We tend to expect better from an enterprise as large as the Government of Canada, but similar snafus crop up in all kinds of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) which have been bolting together applications they’ve either purchased or created over long periods of time. Think of all the online order forms that seem to send information into thin air, internal sales leads that go missing or benefits changes that can’t seem to get made no matter how many times employees enter them. None of those consequences are as potentially dire as EI delays, but they can affect not only a company’s performance but its reputation with customers, staff morale or, depending on what goes wrong, a ton of expenses. Service Canada may be this week’s poster child for IT failure, but few SMBs can afford the kind of disgruntled users that are more or less stuck with the government.

It’s interesting that the headline for the online version of the Globe’s story was “Unforgiving computer system causes long waits for EI payments.” Consciously or not, the headline invokes a key principle in user interface (UI) design. Forgiveness refers to an approach to creating something that takes into account the most likely errors a user will make, and providing functionality that attempts to fix them before much damage is done. An example might be the auto-correct features in most word-processing programs that address common typos, or the “cancel” button that gives you an out before you submit something wrong online.

The concept of forgiveness is something the IT industry typically assigns to the vendors that make products and services, but the Service Canada EI debacle proves it needs to start with the customer. Anyone who has worked in the government managing EI claims for any length of time would know the five or 10 most common mistakes applicants make. Similarly, SMBs should be close enough to their users to identify the areas where things are most likely to go awry. As they become more mature users of IT, this may become the ultimate SMB decision-maker’s skill set. Yes, to err is human. But to be able to pinpoint where forgiveness needs to be built in is divine.

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  • It just gets worse. The Canadian Banknote Company’s “Picture Postage” web site cautions 5-15 business days delivery, but THIS constraint is imposed by Canada Post, who, in carrying postage stamps from one customer to another say they’ll need a minimum of 5 business days Ottawa-to-Toronto, and possibly (it happens!) as many as 15 BUSINESS days.

  • Are you serious? Wow, that’s nuts.

  • Christopher H

    Fortunately, most SMBs aren’t hamstrung by legislation that effectively makes auto-correction illegal.