Wiser Technology Advice Blog

Avoiding online failures

Sonya Weiser - Tuesday, August 16, 2016

There are many ways of failing online, some more embarrassing than others.

You may not have a website, which is pretty much compulsory for a business these days, particularly for a professional services provider. The first thing people do after meeting you at a networking function is check out your online presence!

Your website may not be presentable or not display well on a mobile phone, causing customers to give up and look at your competitors’ offerings. All the effort put into Google rankings is pointless if customers take one look at your website and the first impression is a poor one.

Or your website may not cope with attacks, either being compromised by hackers or failing during times of peak demand.

We’ve been watching with interest all the fallout from the 2016 online census failure. It’s been a fascinating mix of poor communication and technical failures that culminated in a very embarrassing situation for the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Technical failures

Serious technical failures, most of which should have been avoidable, created a nightmare for the introduction of the first online census.

The website and online form simply couldn’t handle the traffic on census day and the problems weren’t handled well. At best a ‘try again later’ message was displayed. For some the website wouldn’t open at all, preventing people from accessing the online census. Or, most frustratingly, people filled in the census online form only to have all their answers lost when they tried to submit it. For many Australians this would have been their first experience of using an online form to provide sensitive and personal information. Having the system fail on them would have created a very poor first impression of the brave new world of technology.

We’re told that the data that was successfully collected from around one million online form submissions has been stored safely, and one hopes that is true! The ABS has a reputation to protect as a trusted and reliable source of statistics, with the nationwide census a very important source of the data used in their statistical analyses.

The Australian Signals Directorate (the information security agency of the Australian Department of Defence) is investigating what went wrong and what’s been done to rectify the problems. It’s not clear (and may never be publicly acknowledged) whether the online census failed because it simply couldn’t cope with the load of millions of Australians trying to use it at the same time, because of software and hardware failures, because of distributed denial of service attacks or some combination of all of these factors.

Poor communication

The most important thing to remember with any change to technology is that the change impacts people. Sounds simple, but this is so often overlooked! Major changes needed to introduce an online form to take census data could have been handled in many different ways.

Unfortunately being a change introduced by a government department, there would always be detractors, no matter how the change was introduced. The dogmatic approach of mandating use of the online census form, requiring people to opt-out if they did not wish to participate, was perhaps a little optimistic. A softly, softly approach of allowing people to opt-in to using an online form for the census may have been a less controversial approach. But this may not have been successful, as there’s so little trust with government collection of online data. Look at the experience of the e-health record, introduced by the Federal government in 2012. It cost more than $1 billion to implement but only one in 10 or around 2.5 million Australians have opted in, only 78,000 health summaries have been uploaded and virtually no doctors are using the records. There are changes afoot, with one million Australians automatically having their personal health information uploaded into the online system from July as the government tries to resurrect the failed project.

A bad situation was made worse on census day once things started to go wrong with the technology. Questions were not answered well by government representatives, giving the impression the ABS was trying to hide that there was a problem with their website and online form. Nigel Phair, Managing Director of the Centre for Internet Safety at the University of Canberra, has been quoted as saying there was a “massive failure of project management”. And having the problems become a political football must be a nightmare for the management involved in the project at the ABS. There’s been very little mention of the IT supplier in all the criticism of the census fail, reminding us that the finger of blame for IT project failures is always pointed at the business, not their supplier.

Avoiding disaster

Of course the technical aspects have to be right when you’re introducing change. For example, if you’re creating an online shopping system have you ensured the payment system is PCI compliant? Do the web pages meet WCAG standards? Are you confident the site is secure and won’t be compromised by hackers?

But our main tip for managing the introduction of change: consider the people involved and the bigger picture that will be impacted by the change. It’s never just about the technology. For example, if customers don’t use your new online shopping system it will never pay a return on the investment. Always consider the impact of change on all the stakeholders, which could include your current and potential customers, people involved in delivering what you’ve promised, and your providers that are needed to support your business.

Wiser Connections is here to help

One great way to introduce change whilst managing expectations is through business process mapping workshops, just one of the great consulting services we offer. We facilitate sessions with a range of stakeholders, helping everyone come to grips with change by thinking through current processes and generating ideas for improvements through introduction of technology.

We’ve recently completed a project for the Aged Care Industry Association (ACIA), assisting with a complete re-branding exercise for the industry association. This was quite a significant exercise; once the new name had been selected the key elements were the design of a new logo and brand format and the development of a new website, all within a very tight time-frame.

Read our Case Study for further information about this successful website development project, which was assigned to Creative Serum through our procurement process.

Our consultants have many years’ experience in the industry and we are here to help. We pride ourselves on being able to find appropriate solutions for your issues, whilst remaining independent of information technology providers.

Contact us today to have one of our consultants discuss your technology needs and to chat about how Wiser Connections can assist your business.

Tell us your stories!

We’d love to hear about your experiences with projects that go off the rails and what you’ve seen go wrong with online marketing and websites! Add your comments to this blog, email us or give us a call to arrange for a coffee and chat.

Resources for further reading

ABS communication failures http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/breakfast/the-biggest-census-fail-was-in-communication-with-the-public/7715506

Census fail timeline http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-08-10/census-night-how-the-shambles-unfolded/7712964

Vendors behind the census fail http://www.crn.com.au/news/census-website-collapses-despite-millions-spent-on-it-contracts-433188?eid=4&edate=20160810&utm_source=20160810&utm_medium=newsletter&utm_campaign=daily_newsletter

Online Health Record system http://www.news.com.au/national/your-personal-health-information-is-about-to-go-online-but-you-can-stop-it/news-story/d4b2c671fd2041e8b8e160b630fe310b

State Government of South Australia’s Information Security Management Framework (ISMF) http://digital.sa.gov.au/resources/topic/policies-guidelines-and-standards/security/information-security-management-framework

Australian Signals Directorate’s Information Security Manual http://www.asd.gov.au/infosec/ism/index.htm

Payment Card Industry (PCI) Security Standards https://www.pcisecuritystandards.org/

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview https://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/wcag

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