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Jul 01, 2009: Shame and disgust

Stumbled across this brief article about a new CIO at the US Department of Veterans Affairs. CIO Roger Baker's "...plan will require managers to deliver systems and applications incrementally, rather than all at once. If managers miss three key milestones, he will take steps such as stopping program development, analyzing and fixing problems, or even firing contractors if things appear to get out of hand."

Holy crap. They'll even fire a contractor? Good God.

But though I snark away, there but for the grace of that Good God go I.

I used to do a little IA consulting for the VA. My client was wonderful, as were some of his colleagues. Most of the people I encountered there, however, were what you'd expect to find within a large, highly dysfunctional agency: water-treaders that were counting the days until they could retire. And you could hardly blame them.

But there were a few that were so completely pernicious that I feel sick to have them traipse across my professional memory even occasionally. Let me tell you...

I was struggling with the upper layers of the site's information architecture. I had been for quite a while. It just didn't do a good job of making health benefits information—the stuff that's the VA's primary raison d'etre—easy to find. In fact, the existing design seemed to go out of its way to obscure benefits information from veterans, even the web-savvy ones that were starting to return from Iraq and Afghanistan in droves.

Naively, when I raised this issue, I thought I'd receive a more typical response, something along the lines of "Yes, it's a huge problem for us, but fixing it would require aligning content from many of our internal departmental silos. But that's why we hired you, Lou."

Nope. What they told me was that they didn't really want to make it easy for veterans—those people risking their lives for their country—to learn about the health benefits that they were entitled to. And that taxpayers had committed to funding. All to save money—and for what??

IT issue? Not. It was an issue of business model design, and this particular business model was shrouded in a sick morality emanating from the top levels of the VA's management structure. Absolutely immorally, shamefully, and horribly sick.

Stunned, I didn't do anything about it while I was still consulting at the VA. And until now, I haven't brought it up, even though it raises such strong feelings of disgust and shame for me.

But I'm hoping that posting my experience and angst here and now helps somehow. I certainly needed to get it off my chest. And maybe it will enable some of the good people in the VA's new administration to get a little further in making their site actually help veterans.

Most of all, I'd like to know what I should have done. This unofficial policy was so terrible in so many ways to so many people. An intentionally poor information architecture likely caused much suffering among thousands and thousands of veterans. But the VA was my client, and should expect a degree of discretion from consultants like me. I feel odd even going public now, five or so years after concluding my work there.

What would you do, fellow information architects?

I think we should all be prepared to answer questions like these, because it could happen to you. Ethical quandaries arise in any profession, but as a new profession, I'm not sure how much we've collectively discussed stuff like this. So...

What would you do?

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Comment: Joe Sokohl (Jul 1, 2009)

Hey Lou,

Good topic, even if sad.

I'd say that your disgust is well placed. Sadly, as a consultant, your obligation was to the client AS LONG AS THEY WERE YOUR CLIENT. You could have quit in a huff, but then you need to ask, What is your ethical requirement to your family? So quitting isn't always an option.

What would I do?

Doing a case study (or series of them) to highlight the problem would help. Also doing some whistleblowing would help, too...but knowing that that could burn some financial and professional bridges.

It's not just the VA. Other federated organizations feel that obfuscation is a business goal. We who expose that thinking often find ourselves out in the cold.

Comment: Lisa Chan (Jul 1, 2009)

This makes me mad since it's not just a professional issue but for me somewhat personal. I have many family members who are VAs and one of them is going through cancer. He travels many hours by car to go to the closest VA hospital for cancer treatment. Knowing he has to wade through poor IA to get info about his benefits just makes me really mad at the system. What would I do? If I were you, I'd try to get a hold of your former contact that you worked well with and escalate to the CIO on getting a useful IA in place. The CIO needs to hear this type of story first hand. How can we be doing such disservice!

I wonder if as consultants we should put a clause in our contracts that allows us to back out of a project if we are forced to endorse unethical practices that endanger lives.

Comment: Chauncey Wilson (Jul 1, 2009)

Hello Lou,

I was one of the co-developers of the UPA Code of Conduct and have a serious interest in ethical issues and have done some writing on ethics over the years. A number of years ago Rolf Molich, Whitney Quesenberry, Brenda Laurel and I did a sessoin at CHI on ethics and it was a fascinating session where we presented some personal ethical dilemmas to the audience and asked how they would react. I've found that there are many ethical issues in our field, but colleagues are somewhat afraid to discuss them openly. For example, as consultant-to-client or employee-to-employer we nearly always have a significant conflict of interest, especially if we work over time with the same group. I was the chair of a human use committee for several years and saw a number of ethical issues come up from the use of statistics to stress in studies to conflict of interests.

If anyone is really interested in proposing a panel on ethical issues at CHI in Atlanta or UPA in Munich, I would happy to join in (oh, and there is not good book about ethics in our field though many good papers. I seem to recall a paper by you or another expert on the ethics of information architecture - an information architecture can have a profound effect on one's ability to solve a problem (can you find information about poisons or toxic substances, for example when your pet or someone you know has gotten into some bad stuff).

I have been in your position and it is a very tough one.


Comment: Giles Colborne (Jul 1, 2009)

There's an ethical dilemma in this kind of situation.

On the one hand, there's a public imperative to expose an organisation that is subtly undermining the mission it publicly espouses (often they're not actively doing something wrong, just letting confusion reign).

On the other is the fact that the whistle blower has found out this information while under contract and, most likely, some kind of non-disclosure or professional confidence applies.

People in power always roast the guy who calls out corporate wrong-doing, and usually on that 'breach of confidence' point.

Sure, it's a lesser evil. But the guys on the other side sling the mud and know some will stick. When you're a white knight, the mud shows up much worse.

I suspect most people try not to think about the tricky ethical problems when they get close to situations like this. By not paying any attention, they (we) don't have to ask difficult questions of themselves (ourselves).

Most people are very good at lying to themselves or ignoring painful truths. You're bigger than that. Kudos.

(I don't know what I'd have done.)

Philip Zimbardo is part of some interesting work aimed at giving people the tools to go even further. http://www.everydayheroism.org/

What would happen if, as a profession, we embraced those principles?

Comment: Susan Price (Jul 1, 2009)

Lou, thanks so much for sharing this.

I hope the answer to you and Chauncey is a resounding OF COURSE we want to discuss this type of thing on panels, in blogs, in Facebook, Twitter, etc.

I'm a fan of Randy Cohen's The Ethicist column in the NYTimes. We need a similar social media outlet. If you're willing, perhaps your blog or other online IA watering holes can have an Ethics category for posts, where we IAs can support one another through such predicaments.

Like the rest of you user-centered design professionals, I often encounter this mismatch of goals between "the business" and "the users." And I usually make good headway helping clients move toward alignment because it's better for business in the long term. Sometimes we get there, and sometimes we don't.

Many times, I serve as the burr under the saddle, or the water wearing away at the rock. Sometimes it takes the perspective of years to see the effect, but it's always there.

Together we can help one another amplify the good we can do.

Thanks again, Lou.

Comment: Hal Gill (Jul 1, 2009)

Thanks for putting this matter out there. For me, there is enough work out here to vote with my feet when I encounter such issues.

I am grateful to have landed in a position with a client that makes me proud to be involved in the work at hand. It will be hard to dislodge me.

I believe that ethically, when we do find such things as you encountered, we should expose them to the best of our ability. I hope that you will make your findings known with documentation to back up your experience to help effect in a change in the organization you mention. The new administration has a commitment to transparency and to improving health care in particular.

Comment: Sara Shelton (Jul 1, 2009)


I am relieved that you called our attention to this.

I have my own story to tell in the financial services industry. However, I did get canned when I pointed out the the problems the user was having and offered a solution. The proverbial s*** hit the fan. I was stunned. My boss actually told me to forget the user going forward. Within a month I was gone.

I knew the ethics of it. I knew the consequences of doing my job. It was making me sick to have to do work that was wrong. I decided to be true to myself and sleep at night.

I, too would like to hear ways to handle situations like yours and mine that don't punish us financially and reputation-wise, ultimately.

I have heretofore been suffering in silence about this.

Comment: blf (Jul 1, 2009)

This is just another sad case of why user centered design seems to be waning and why many are leaving the profession. The total lack of ethics, pride, or honor on the part of most in management, and neither business nor government it seems, cares if their products or websites are "usable" or useful.

Smoke and mirrors, marketing and gimmicks are the only things that seem to matter.

Comment: blf (Jul 1, 2009)

BTW, what I just described is called the "Microsoft effect" thanks to that company's contribution to the industry of ineffectual interface design, marketing gimmicks and lack of concern over the end user.

Comment: Jay Fienberg (Jul 1, 2009)

One thing about this situation that, I think, makes it particularly hard: you are talking not only about your ethics as a professional in a work situation, but also about the ethics of an organization that is established by us (as citizens) vs one's responsibility as a citizen.

(On top of that, the specific issue sounds practically immoral, beyond being simply unethical.)

So, besides an obligation you maybe have had to fight for what is right as an advocate for users and/or as someone working for the interests of the organization, you maybe also had an obligation to fight for what is right as a citizen-- as someone who is in some ways responsible for the organization itself.

(Then there is the moral issue: could you save lives by literally working against the organization.)

I don't know if it's useful to unravel your issue in that way, but I feel like the ethical issues I've faced pale in comparison to this one. And, while I've loudly voiced my concerns and quit in a few circumstances where I found my employer to be unethical and asking for unethical designs, I don't know if that kind of choice would be sufficient in this case, with the additional layers of ethical and moral violations.

Comment: Giles Colborne (Jul 1, 2009)

I'm really interested in Lisa Chan's idea about having an ethical 'back out' clause in agreements.

Has anyone ever seen one? Tried to include one? Been on the receiving end of one? If so, what happened?

Comment: Steve Portigal (Jul 1, 2009)

In some ways Lou's extreme example is "easy" because it seems so egregious. It deals with deliberate active neglect, not passive or reprioritization. It deals with a population that we're likely to consider as deserving of support. And it exposes a goal of working against the concerns of the user.

But the ethics we want to understand and expose and feel more centered ourselves about are much more nuanced. So, I ask very naively, how do we expose and agree on ethics for our pratice(s)/discipline(s)? Is there a template from any other profession (say, law or medicine?) that we could start from?

And how do we meaningfully parse this code for our own decisions?

And how does us being ethical impact the issue coming up here, which is that others are not bound by the same code and thus potentially not ethical themselves?

Finally, I enjoy Randy Cohen as well, but this critique (almost 10 years old) is provocative in terms of highlighting the depth of challenge here:


Comment: Noreen Whysel (Jul 1, 2009)

Here is the UPA code of conduct and other initiatives around ethics:

Code of Conduct:

Designing Voting Systems:

Comment: Vincent van der Lubbe (Jul 1, 2009)

What should you have done?

My thoughts on this: as it is a government service, it fortunately has to service the public :-) In that sense, it seems to be a "clear case" compared to f.e. trying to lock cutomers in so much that they spend all their time and money on the site by using all the possible "technology" like virtual money, sound effects, contrast etc. etc.

Your case - possible elements:

1. state the case clearly in terms of public damage (and "voices of the customer" for the story telling part) and proposed changes to relieve the situation. (You did that it seems).

I assume there exists a kind of charter for this department. It probably violates against the charter.

Give a time limit within which you would expect to receive an answer and what happens afterwards (give them a chance, but show consequences).

2. escalate through the ranks to the top, then go to those who have a say (who controls/supervises the VA?)

3. maybe go public with(out) interested parties (veterans organisations, members of congress, newspapers, blogs etc.).

4. ask a lawyer? :-)

Government at least has the interest of the public it should serve. For business it might still be more convincing to use "financial arguments", since "moralizing" does not seem to hold too much weight. Saving cost is a legitimate business interest.

@chauncey wilson: I am interested, encountered several dilemmas and would like to collect more cases, look for ways of solving these problems (frameworks, methods, perspectives) and get the most common dilemmas "mapped", so we get some help to recognize and face them. I studied political philosophy/ethics at university and worked in financial sales afterwards, I feel I know what you mean :-) :-(

Comment: Michael Albers (Jul 1, 2009)

Of course, with the VA, you could talk to the top guy's real bosses. Schedule an appointment with your local Congressmen.

But yes, this is one of the over-the-top ethics cases. It's the subtle ones that are harder and need more discussion. I try to find them for teaching, but have little luck. For real discussion, you need more than "either do it" or "quit" as choices.

Comment: Marko Hurst (Jul 1, 2009)

Lou sent me an email about this post earlier and asked if I had an opinion on it as a 1)UX & web analytics professional (I'm Lou's co-author on Search Analytics) and 2)as a former US Marine.

Having read the above comments I'm glad that this issue was seen as a very black & white ethics issue. It's wrong in many ways, the least of it by ignoring UCD best practices.

You've all done a fine job on how it could or how you would of handled it, I'll will only add "bodily harm" to the list had it been said to me. The fact of the matter is our system is broken in so many ways and this is just one example. When I got out of the Marines in the mid 90's the Internet wasn't an issue for me, but it seems that the mentality of what you have to go though offline with paperwork and in the offices was sadly carried online. It was so bad for me that I decided to not even use the VA anymore, because it was less of a hassle to pay out of pocket for private insurance & doctors.

As a veteran I'll leave you with this... I like most who served this country did it with dignity, honor, and respect. I am proud of what I did, who I am, and would do it all again. To read Lou's post is nothing short of tragic, as well as shameful. We deserve better than this.

Comment: Knowledge (Jul 1, 2009)

Call the Inspector General. Report the situation and they will investigate to see if it is an isolated incident with one facility or widespread in the system.

Comment: Stacy Surla (Jul 2, 2009)

Lou, as a VA contractor myself, I think you missed one layer down in the reasons why benefits info is hard to find. It’s a protective mechanism driven by the reality that the eligibility calculations have accreted over time and are deeply arcane. It's very hard for experts within the system to figure out who is eligible for what. The challenge of making it possible for YOU, the veteran, to figure this out for yourself is terrifyingly difficult. In this case bad IA is not evil by design, though it has very evil results (as bad IA so often does).

As for what we need to do - in general - to help our clients and the public find a way forward, it's important to look beyond purely IT reasons or business stakeholder motivations for why things get messed up. We need to make an effort to understand history, processes and culture. That way, whether one feels it's ethically sufficient to break through the logjam in small, direct ways with the client, or is in a position to rally the political will to change at an executive level, or decides a call to the Washington Post is in order, we have better intelligence with which to make a difference.

Comment: Fern (Jul 2, 2009)

Document everything said, then at end blow whistle. And write book.

Comment: Chauncey Wilson (Jul 2, 2009)

I think that a small book with case studies would be a welcome addition to the UX book collection. The Ethicist column is quite good at parsing a situation into ethical versus political versus legal issues.

With the rise in social networking, there are new ethical issue that people need to consider. I had a course on ethics in college that went through the various ethical philosophies and perspectives.

Would anyone like to consider submitting an ethics panel proposal for CHI or UPA or IxDA. An interesting ethical issue that emerged at IxDA (which was generally an excellent conference) was the very public Twittering about the conference and speakers while it was going on. Some harsh notes appeared about speakers on big screens in the main conference rooms between sessions. Some of the comments were just rude (not unethical) and I think some went so far as to violate professional ethics. What are the ethical issues about referring to your work situation in Twitter. How about a presentation at IxDA about the ethics of social networking?


Comment: Jared M. Spool (Jul 3, 2009)

I wonder if this is prosecutable under a failure to provide for accessibility claim.

If information is not accessible, especially to disabled veterans, do you have a compliance argument that can force the issue into the public?

Comment: Terry Bleizeffer (Jul 6, 2009)

Interesting post, Lou. I wrote about a similar situation on my blog (linked above), though my situation is much less emotionally charged than providing medical services for veterans... it's about the cleverly designed system that makes is really hard to cancel magazine subscriptions. It was clear that this wasn't unintentional bad usability... it was really well-executed and well-designed bad usability.

When there's a situation where business goals and customer goals are in direct conflict, I don't think a UX consultant can fix the problem.

Comment: flash (Jul 6, 2009)


Comment: James Melzer (Jul 7, 2009)

Lou, As you know, I also worked at VA for a while. I am disheartened about your experiences there. None of my work at VA was actually for veterans directly - it was all by and for the bureaucracy of the Department. My customers were very conscientious that every business plan or mission statement had 'service to veterans' as the top goal even if it wasn't particularly relevant to the task. There was no way of telling if that was sincere or simply lip service.

I was overwhelmed by the scale and depth of the VA bureaucracy. It was very easy to lose the forest for the trees.

Comment: Roee Or (Jul 20, 2009)

I think that personal agenda is stronger than client needs.
If you were a lawyer, would you defend a murderer who has confessed to you? I know I wouldn't.
I would have told the client, that I cannot dedicate my knowledge to the suffering of others - and cannot help them with their continuing efforts to mislead their true clients.
In the short run – it might hurt your business, but in the long run others will see the value of you and your decision.

Comment: Fran Alexander (Jul 22, 2009)

It's a translation to IA of old-style bureaucratic systems of sending people to collect loads of different forms from offices in different parts of the building (or even city). I guess those systems "evolved" so no one person was responsible for the entire design and therefore nobody in particular had to face the ethical dilemma. I think it is a really important issue, especially as online "persuasive design" techniques improve and we get better at psychologically manipulating people.

Comment: EffeseMic (Jul 25, 2009)

hi. great article!

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