Death of the notes box

As a designer, it's not my job to design the things people want. It's my job to design the things they need.

When you work in Government, you see a lot of legacy systems. These are ancient beasts, built off the back of corporate I.T contracts decades ago.

They're clunky, and we're unable to make changes. UX wasn't even a thing back then. The interfaces range from what looks like Teletext to an Excel spreadsheet. The font size is about 6px, because any screen resolution over 640px was unheard of when they were built.

There's a lot these systems have to answer for. But one of my biggest gripes is the culture of 'note-box enthusiasts' these systems have created.

The problem

The notes box has become a global dumping ground for anything the user thinks 'might' be useful. Whether they're processing an application or dealing with a customer query, they just fill the notes box with lines and lines of redundant information. Just in case there's a slight chance somebody else might need it in the future.

Some people think they're being helpful. Should anybody else want that information, it's there. Others do it out of fear. They're covering their own back, proving they're being thorough with their work.

For example:

Customer rang at 14:06 to change bank details. Updated account number from 12345678 to 87654321 and sort-code from 12-34-56 to 65-43-21.

This might look helpful, but it highlights how the notes box can be a security minefield!

You should always encrypt passwords, bank account details and other sensitive information. This is obvious. But, what is often overlooked, is that the notes field is not always encrypted. So, the above note would store bank details as plain text. Whilst this is a hypothetical example, it shows how you can expose information through human error. And this puts customer data and your users at risk.

As a designer, we should be thinking long and hard about how we design services. Having worked on an admin system for the past 12 months, removing the notes box has been a challenge. But, we managed.

We've replaced notes with a logging system. It captures the key information at trigger points in the journey, and creates the notes for you. This way all the need-to-know information is there, and all the redundant stuff is gone.

It sounds simple. And it is. But it's been a long hard fight. This is because it goes against what the user wants and instead only provides them with what they need.

We need to do the hard work to make it simple. As designers, we need to make sure we always challenge the status quo and design for user needs. But at the same time, we need to make sure we build trust and rapport with users through regular user research. This will allow us to understand user needs and come to the right design decisions together.

As always, I'm happy to discuss this further. Just get in touch.

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