“The largest community technology project in the world” is how Michael Byrne (pictured) proudly describes Ennis Information Age Town (EIAT), the €19m Eircom-funded project that reached the end of its five-year lifespan over the summer.
Although officially over, in another way the project has just been given a new lease of life. At the beginning of September, Byrne — the former chief executive of EIAT, launched a new business venture — Ennis Information Age Services (EIAS) — whose raison d’être is to take the lessons of Ennis to a wider audience.
“When we were involved in the Ennis project we realised that there were lessons of national strategic importance and part of the reason why we set up the business was to share the learning. We also realised that there was a significant business opportunity and there weren’t many at the same game,” says Byrne.
The name chosen for the new business shows how keen he was to leverage the good name of a project that was seen as emblematic of the country’s move towards the digital age. In fact, the new company can be viewed as the anointed offspring of EIAT — not only are the chief executive and many of the staff the same but the new company is located in the old EIAT offices in Ennis and even received its seed capital from the EIAT fund.
Byrne adds that the link with Ennis will be retained in another way — any profits from the new operation are going to be ploughed back into Ennis Information Age initiatives.
If the business proposition of the new company is based on sharing the lessons from the Ennis project, what are those lessons exactly? The main one is the ‘gap between technology and the end user’, which Byrne says he witnessed at first hand during the project.
Despite the considerable amount of money invested in schools, homes, community centres and businesses to educate people about technology and to boost its usage, one of the persistent problems it seems was that people found technology difficult to get on with.
“One of the reasons that people don’t use technology more than they do is that the technology is not that good and hasn’t always been built with the end user in mind,” notes Byrne.
He gives examples of where technology has failed to deliver — the fact that 60pc of people fail to complete online purchases, that although banks have invested heavily in online offerings they have seen a relatively low uptake of those services and that people only use a fraction of the features on any word processing package or mobile phone.
It is this ‘usability’ deficit that Byrne believes his four-strong usability team can address. The team is headed up by Pat Feehan, formerly of Compaq, whom Byrne describes as the “best practitioner of usability in the country”.
Closely related to usability is accessibility, the other main focus of the company’s work. An accessible website is one that has been designed to reach as wide an audience as possible through, for example, the inclusion of multiple language versions or features that make it accessible to those with physical disabilities.
While not claiming that poor usability or accessibility are the reasons why all e-business sites fail, Byrne believes that in many cases they can be important contributory factors.
On both fronts, Byrne is entering the market at arguably just the right time. The science of usability has been around for several years, but is only now starting to gain serious recognition and some internationally accepted guidelines are starting to evolve. On the accessibility side, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) has its own web accessibility initiative. In the US there is even a federal law that obliges website owners to make the sites accessible.
Here in Europe, Byrne notes, leading companies and governments that want to be seen as modern and inclusive are making accessibility a key criterion of new web projects.
The gospel of usability and accessibility may be spreading internationally but is the Irish market ready to be converted? “There still is a lot of education needed but I think a lot of business managers are not getting the returns on investment they expected from their websites and are wondering why not,” says Byrne. “We believe that you’ve got to establish a clear, precise methodology to establish what the end user will actually use and to uncover mistakes in the current applications.”
Usability involves measuring the routes that people take through a website and comparing them with the optimum routes envisaged by the developer. These observations are not made at the client’s site but at EIAS’s own custom-built National Usability Laboratories. Here, a user’s journey around a site is tracked and captured on video. The results are then fed back to the client, along with recommendations for achieving a more effective site. The labs include an observation room from which developers and site owners can monitor user behaviour.
EIAS is already working on several usability projects. Most of the customers are located outside Ennis — corporates, large banks and other financial institutions and of course, government. One of the projects it is currently working on is improving the registration element of Revenue On-Line Services, the first of many projects, he hopes. “We’d see a huge opportunity when it comes to e-government because it’s absolutely vital that they build systems that are accessible to a broad mass of end users.
“Internationally, there’s huge difficulty with e-government sites. They don’t appeal to people and the usage level is very low,” he adds.
Citing the example of the driving test application site, he criticises e-government sites that don’t involve any backend process improvement and merely give you “a fast way to join a long queue”.
Despite the pressure on government finances, Byrne believes that the e-government bandwagon has started to roll and cannot be reversed. “I don’t think our Government can afford not to invest in e-government,” he remarks. “Ultimately, we may be in a temporarily difficult period but the Government is on track to make services more widely available. I don’t think they can row back significantly from this.”