In my previous article I explained how I came to be “a legal alien” as a UX designer on Curaçao – a bit of a new-kid-on-the-block with genuine grounds for being here. Through a series of four articles I reflect on the state of UX in Curaçao as I encounter it in my daily life. In the first of the series I showed that UX is still in its infancy on the island and it is still a Unique Selling Point for businesses that do take UX designers aboard. In this second article I want to delve a bit deeper into how websites and software currently look and feel here on the island, without the presence of ubiquitous UX professionals.
The largest part of my job is UX design of software for government organizations, such as the tax office and immigration. As a recent arrival from Europe it is quite the eye-opener to look over the shoulders of users here, while they are using their current back-office systems. Most of these systems are over 15 years old, and they look it. Think Windows 95 look and feel, with a sauce of overcomplicated windows and unnecessary dialogs. When you ask users how they feel about it, they sigh and say: “It’s not good, but it’s all we’ve got…”
These dedicated software systems do not remotely meet the users’ needs. Alongside those numerous windows, they have Excel sheets and Word documents to keep track of all the things the software should really be tracking; to calculate the things the software should be calculating. And that is only what happens on-screen. There are further post-it notes on the users’ walls and around their screens, and stacks upon stacks of paperwork in every corner, cartoonishly overflowing desks and cabinets.
It takes my mind back to this book I read, written by my former PhD advisor, called “The myth of the paperless office”. It is clearly still a myth 13 years after that book was published. And yet, I can’t help but think, what if even a portion of all that would be digitized and kept in handy digital archives, in an integrated software system? Wouldn’t that make life so much easier? Things would not get lost so easily and people would be able to work on their freshly emptied desks – bonus!
Ancient back-office systems in cluttered offices. When you ask users how they feel about it,
they sigh and say: “It’s not good, but it’s all we’ve got…”
Such integrated software and digitized file archives are exactly what we are working towards. However, it takes more than good UX and good software development to reach such changes. It also takes changes in organizations and infrastructure to encourage new ways of working and optimize work processes. I will be talking about such external limitations in the last of my four reflection articles.
Business through social networking
You are probably thinking that upgrading complicated back-office systems costs time and money and it is not something organizations want to do too often. Sure, but this is not only the state of the digital world within organizations on Curaçao. There is also a surprising lack of websites, and websites that do exist leave quite some things to be desired when it comes to their user experience.
Living and working in the UK, I got used to any business, activity or mere thought having an online presence through a dedicated website with a slick WordPress or Bootstrap design. After all, using platforms like that, anyone can build a nice looking website in a matter of hours, if not minutes. “Everyone is a (UX) designer,” right?
Not on Curaçao. Whether it is a hair salon, a bar, or a tourist event, everything is done via Facebook instead. You usually cannot find the detailed information you need on these Facebook pages; after all, that’s not really what Facebook was intended for. However, you can usually rather quickly find someone who knows the owner or organizer in your own (offline) network – it is a small island. Simply send a WhatsApp message or give them a call, that’s the way to get things done here. For someone who is used to the anonymous, no-direct-contact way of life in big-city Europe, this is quite a shock to the system (“I have to actually speak to a person!?”)
The wild, wild web
The websites that do exist for businesses here often make you wish they had stuck with a Facebook page instead. Remember back in the early 90ies when CSS wasn’t invented and bright colors, Comic Sans, and flashy animations were the way of the web? When content was static and website creation was done by precious few. That is the average Curaçao website (no offense). Web 1.0 at its best – a sharp contrast to the social media character of the Facebook-centered side of the island.
It is also not uncommon for large multi-branch shops to have websites that look okay at first glance but that simply do not have that crucial information you are looking for, such as opening times, or what products they sell and their prices. In my early days on the island – my European expectations about websites still intact – I remember happily discovering the website of a large furniture shop on the island. My joy did not last long as I soon found out that their “online catalog” consisted of only 5 products, none of which had prices or details.
In both work and everyday life on Curaçao it thus seems that the digital world has largely missed the emergence of contemporary UX and the good standards we have come to love. It works, sort of, in the island’s own way. However, the fact that people are used to things does not mean they cannot be improved. It does not have to be the case that “it’s all they got”. Therefore, in the next article I will address how not to torture our users, and in my final reflection I will go into meeting, or better yet exceeding, user expectations.