Usability in public services

Usability is crucial to e-government. High quality services are a source of public value, and good usability is a key part of quality. On the other hand, poor public perception of services may weaken policy acceptance and detract from the achievement of policy outcomes. However, usability, as developed in the Human-Computer Interaction research tradition, has not been prominent in the theory or practice of public policy.

Lived experience, user experience, and usability

Information technology is no longer encountered only in specialised environments, but is part of the background to everyday living, so that, as McCarthy and Wright put it, today we “don’t just use technology; we live with it".

e-Government is a good example of the use of computer systems outside the workplace. However, although the interactions are not in the workplace, citizens interacting with government through e-government systems are often fulfilling civic obligations.

Our approach re-focuses e-government research onto the daily experiences of citizens, as computer users who live with technology but do not live for it.

Policy roots of e-government usability

We start from the realisation that many issues which people encounter as they make use of e-government systems are the direct or indirect result of policy decisions; e-government systems implement these decisions, but fundamental usability problems cannot be overcome in the implementation stages.

Policy and implementation need to be considered together, and usability insights developed over decades by HCI practitioners can be applied to the design of policy, as well as to interactions with computer interfaces.

e-Government in London transport

Urban transport is a vital area of city governance, yet it is under researched as an area of public policy. Our research included case studies of the three main public-facing e-government iniatives in transport in a world city, London. Transport in London is a public service, provided in support of specific policy aims: an integrated transport system, economic efficiency, safety, a focus on the needs of the transport user, and encouraging the use of sustainable modes of transport.

As with other areas of public-facing government services, computers, in traditional and emerging forms, play an increasing part in mediating between government and citizen. The Oyster transport smartcard, the TfL Journey Planner, and payment systems for the Central London Congestion Charge, are examples of some of developing trends in uses of computers:

  • invisible computers, smartcards, and non-screen interfaces in the Oystercard;
  • mobile and the Internet combined with traditional information resources in the TfL Journey Planner;
  • a high-profile policy enabled by computers in the case of the Central London Congestion Charge.



Philip Inglesant and M. Angela Sasse: Usability is the Best Policy: Public Policy and the Lived Experience of Transport Systems in London: in People and Computers XXI: HCI ... but not as we know it HCI 2007, Lancaster, UK, September 2007


Philip Inglesant and M. Angela Sasse: Usability is a policy issue: Minimising the "Hassle Factor" in mobile payment of the Central London Congestion Charge: in Proceedings of Euro m-Gov Conference, Brighton, UK, 10–12 July 2005

Philip Inglesant and M. Angela Sasse: Situating the transient user: overcoming challenges in the design of e-government systems: in User Involvement in e-Government development projects, workshop at Interact 2005, Rome, Italy, September 2005


Ian Kearns: Public Value and E-Government: IPPR, 2004

John McCarthy & Peter Wright: Technology as Experience: The MIT Press, 2004 (Paperback 2007)

This page was last modified on 27 Dec 2010.