Anyone who has ever tremulously hit the Go Live button on a new system prior to a big event with a lot riding on it can empathise with the folks at the Australian Bureau of Statistics right now.

For those not in Australia who might not know what happened, Tuesday 9 August was census night, an event that happens every five years. For the first time, the ABS was using an online form to collect census information, and everyone was encouraged to use it. Paper forms were provided only upon request.

But on Tuesday evening the system couldn’t handle the load, whether from legitimate use or from a denial of service attack isn’t yet clear. And what could have been just a minor nuisance for people (can’t get in now, I’ll try again later this week) turned into a public relations nightmare for the ABS, with the Prime Minister saying that ‘heads will roll’.

There are of course technology lessons to be learned, but I’d like to offer some thoughts on what we can learn about communications.

Spread the love

Try to avoid piling everything into one intense, make-or-break moment for your system rollout. There was no need for everyone in Australia to log in Tuesday night to complete the census.  The deadline for completing it is 23 September, so there is still plenty of time, but the communications from the ABS gave the impression that Tuesday night was the night.  Really, they were asking everyone in Australia to log in at the same time. One colleague told me he completed his a day early. I didn’t even know that was an option. Many people became concerned that they would be fined for not completing it that night, which added to their angst and may have caused some to panic.

Have some empathy

Put yourself in the user’s shoes and imagine what they will feel if there are problems. Then use that to guide both your advance communications and your responses to problems. The ABS only gave people a phone number to call if they were experiencing issues, and that was quickly swamped too. Early on, their advice was to wait 20 minutes and try again, and people became even more angry by following that advice and spending the whole evening trying and failing to connect, when they would much rather be watching the Olympics.

Consider what else is happening concurrently with your rollout

Did census night have to be scheduled during the Olympics?

Have a backup plan ready to go that doesn’t create extra work for the users

What if the ABS had issued everyone a paper form along with the instructions for completing the census online?  Yes, they would have been blasted for wasting trees, but at least people would have had a simple alternative ready to go. Instead of trying over and over again to log in, they could just complete the paper form and be done with it.

Technology is going to fail sometimes. But thinking through the communications more carefully and having empathy for the users can help to keep them from turning into an angry mob of villagers with torches and pitchforks.