Business Tech: UX and UI Part III - Compliance
A number of years ago, I was chatting with a good friend who is also a MultiValue programmer/analyst. He made a passing reference to his ex-wife as She Who Must be Obeyed. I asked him if he knew where that phrase came from and he mentioned Rumpole of the Bailey, a television program. I told him that it was originally from the H. Rider Haggard novel She .
I mention this for two reasons. First, this article is about Compliance and the She Who Must be Obeyed in compliance is the law. Second, like my friend, you may find yourself with incomplete information that looks complete.
The Tire Story
I have another friend who nearly turned purple with remembered rage as he told me the story of why he isn't in the tire business. It seemed that he and his partners had bought land and started to set up a factory only to find that nearly everything they were about to do was illegal. They hadn't done an environmental impact statement before selecting their site. They hadn't determined which buildings were downwind of the smoke that making tires would produce. They were in an area which was zoned for industry but not that particular industry. There were more issues, but you get the idea.
Why didn't he know the rules before putting down money? You might think that it would be reasonable for the government to have a simple, single-source location where you could tell them what sort of business you want to run and they'd spit back a neat list containing all the rules. You'd be wrong. Because the rules, like the government, aren't really one monolithic thing. They are an assembly of parts.
The rules for building a factory in Flushing are not going to be the same as the rules for setting up the same business in Fort Lauderdale. Both places are in the United States and share the same federal laws, but we don't just have that one layer of government. Everyone from the town council on up has the ability to make their own laws and demand compliance. It may not be fair, but the burden of knowing all the rules falls on us.
The good news is that we are rarely in a wholly unique business. There are associations for people who do what we do. The local Chamber of Commerce is another asset to consider. Odds are, there are lawyers who specialize in your business as well. Common needs often create common solutions.
And once you find out what governmental groups have jurisdiction, you can ask those groups directly. They will be obligated to provide you all the rules. Start at the smallest level and ask them for the hierarchy. I assure you that the Flushing Town Council knows who is above them in the governmental chain all the way up to the Federal level.
Sometimes a few phone calls or a Google search can give you a fast way to acquire the information you need. Wading through it is another matter. If you aren't fluent in legalese, you may need to hire someone who is.
I'm a compliance geek. Not as geeky as Susan Joslyn or some of my other friends, but I am what I am. It isn't that I enjoy being told what to do. I find that the laws surrounding a business are like a map of what can go wrong. The majority of compliance rules, in my experience, are reactive. They come into existence after something has gone badly. There's a story hidden inside most rules.
The gruesome saying I grew up with is true: stop signs and traffic lights are planted in blood. While some are placed based on carefully architected maps created by city planners, fatalities — and the likelihood of future fatalities — are often the deciding factor.
UI & UX
What has all of this got to do with making web pages or apps or anything else that we have been talking about in this series? To state the painfully obvious: breaking the law is illegal. The burden, as we already discussed, is on us to know the law. What you code can make you culpable. What you design might make you liable.
To give you a non-interface example: I used to work in international import and export. While coding for a subsystem that moved automobiles from one country to another, I was asked if I had factored in U.S. Fish and Wildlife. If that confuses you, then you know how I felt. I said something witty such as "Fish don't drive cars."
Turns out that leather seats, being made from animal hide, come under their jurisdiction. They have a strong opinion about which sorts of animals can and can't be used.
The next week I was working on the importing of fine china. Once again, I was asked a question that seemed to make no sense: Did I take the Food and Drug Administration into account? "Food goes on plates, not in plates," I replied.
Turns out, china plates have a certain amount of lead content. Assuring that reasonable steps have been taken to keep the lead in the plate and not leeching out into the food falls under FDA rules.
Recently, I was in a discussion about how HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws impact credit and collection. I won't go into the details here. I'll just leave these three examples here as a cautionary tale that we need to take the wide view when looking for laws which might apply to us.
From a UI/UX standpoint, one of the hot topics is accessibility. The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a part of that landscape here in the U.S. If we think of compliance as a set of rules planted in blood, those rules become guidance toward better ways of doing what we do. Making a website or a program more accessible is making the audience for it wider.
Generally speaking, when we build something, we want it to be usable by everyone who should use it. So, instead of being weighed down by the rules, let's learn from them.
Greek to Me
Imagine if I built you a great website but the entire text was in Greek even though your target audience is entirely made up of people who speak French? While some French speakers may read Greek, I've limited your audience. A site that layers colors in a way which renders it useless to the colorblind is a limiter. Compliance is very often a road-map of potholes, designed to help you avoid getting your tires chewed up.
If we see the ADA rules as hundreds of hours a research into what to avoid, they become a time-saver, not a burden. Working with these rules has made me rethink a lot of my design approaches. Getting a fresh perspective on work I've been doing for decades is a happy side-effect of compliance.
Remember, in this case, resistance isn't just futile, it's counter-productive.