We were recently approached to do some usability testing on the Financial Conduct Authority website. In order to prepare the proposal I spoke to a stockbroker friend to get some idea of users' goals and the effectiveness of the site. I was rather surprised to learn that he would never dream of going anywhere near the site. Apparently their business has a staff of 40 specialists – mainly lawyers - whose sole job it is to understand the FCA rules and develop policies and procedures for ensuring they don’t run foul of these.
So the main users of the site are professionals whose job it is to interpret the rules for their clients. They have spent years learning the rules and how the FCA and its website works. They don't need it to be usable in the way a lay user would. Indeed, given the number and complexity of the rules (188cm high when printed!), if a lay user felt it was easy to understand and use then they are probably wrong!
There is a similar issue with another government agency client of ours who have a very complex product that you can apply for online. They have spent a lot of time and effort and done lots of usability testing to ensure it is really easy to submit an application online. Anybody could do it. And that, in a way, is a problem. Users think they have successfully made an application but whether it is a good application is another matter. When we test the site with professionals they flag up all sorts of issues about how the application needs to be made if it is to be of any use. Inexperienced applicants don't know what they don't know. The problem is how to stop users who don't know what they are doing, and send them off to do some serious research at appropriate points before they continue.
So if a process is so complex - think tax, the law, planning - that only an 'expert' has the knowledge to navigate competently, does it make sense to make it seem usable to non-expert users? They are only deceived into thinking they can do something - when in reality they can't.
Ideally what these sites should do is to redesign their processes to make them simpler. But redesigning the processes that sites like the HMRC have to cope with is not going to happen any time soon. So what can they do, given users will jump straight into doing something and not read the upfront instructions? The answer lies in how the contextual and help information is presented during an application process. This has to lead the inexperienced user as quickly as possible to the conclusion that they don't know what they are doing so they either go off and do their research or seek professional help.
Maybe there there are some sites where good UX can be bad....