Online Census Flopped?

The online census attracted less than half the expected number the Dominion Post reported yesterday.

Less than half the expected number of people filled out the new Online Census.
The paper reported that Statistics NZ had hoped that 15-20 per cent of the population would complete the census online, based on dry runs conducted last year – but only 7 per cent of people did so.

Well, I’m not surprised considering the number of usability issues I identified in the run up to census day.

But Statistics is on the defensive about usability with this quote from Census general manger Nancy McBeth in the Dominion Post article:

One respondent praised the online census form as “the best designed, most well thought-out, user friendly, computer geek-free form they had ever filled out”.

OK, so some people had no issues. A number of these people emailed me – including a few angry responses implying that I didn’t know what I was talking about. But one thing I noticed about these people is that they work in the computer industry – THEY ARE NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF THE GENERAL NZ POPULATION (one commentator praising the online census was even outed on a forum as having worked on the census project!).

The article went on to say:

McBeth wasn’t prepared to prejudge the reasons for the lower than expected take-up. A post-census survey has been commissioned that will assess the people’s attitudes to the online form. The sample size is 1500 and the results are expected in July.

Well, they don’t have to waste more tax-payers money. Here’s why I think the online census was a flop:

  • As I identify on March 5ththe online census did not follow web design best-practise for online forms.
  • As far as I’ve managed to glean, the online census creators did not follow a user-centred design process. Apparently some usability and accessibility testing and was done, but this IS NOT ENOUGH.
  • People like the aesthetics of filling out a form on paper – you just can’t beat sitting at the table or on the sofa and slowly filling out a paper form, in your own time, with a cuppa…

These issues are just scratching the surface, and the survey by Statistcis NZ will only go part of the way to identifying the problems.

A USER CENTRED DESIGN ethos (and interaction design processes) is essential to ensure websites with forms-based transactions are usable and useful – you must understand the behaviours of people using your service or product – which reaches far beyond the computer screen and into how people think, what they expect, what they do and how they react when it comes to the crunch.