Completing tasks stepwise

After waiting on an improbable response from the HealthSource RI health benefits web app I lamented on Twitter
Every time I have to wait for the interactive response of some application I wish the Envoy Framework was common. December 20, 2019
So what was so great about the Envoy Framework, a framework that was designed 28 years ago for a pre-Internet environment? You should read the whole article, but in short there were two user interaction aspects that I wanted

1. A user is able to disconnect from their session and return at a another time and continue where they left off.

2. A user is notified when requested work has been completed or can continue using their immediately appropriate notification mechanism.

In the HealthSource RI situation I was signing up for 2020 benefits. There is a short window of time to make these benefit decisions and there are many people making them. These circumstances put a strain on an implementation not designed to scale. Even an implemented designed for the cloud will be handicapped when there are choke points. That is, one or more resources that every request needs to interactive with. There are a number of technical solutions to these, but there are also user interaction solutions also. The easiest solution is to ask the user to come back later to complete the work.

On the surface interrupting the user seems the wrong action to take. The person is here and now and so the system should use this opportunity to complete the task. The rub comes when the system slows down and the task is taking longer than the person has time to give here and now. It is better to let the user leave and notify them when the system is ready to continue. When the user returns the system reestablishes the user's context, ie it brings them back up to speed, so as to not unduly prolong the time to completion.

If I were designing HealthSource RI I would make interactions interruptible. Long tasks are broken down into short tasks, each of which can be completed with limited (near zero) interaction with the system. Each time the user returns to work further on the long task they are presented with a plain summary of what has been accomplished and what is left to accomplish. This summary can be written or visual. When a long task is interrupted the user will be contacted, repeatedly if necessary, to return and complete the task. For time critical tasks the contact mechanisms may need to escalate; a person might need to actually phone the user and compete the task over the phone.

People are used to completing tasks stepwise in the physical world. Why not make enabling that a norm in the virtual world too?