The North Dakota Job Service website is a massive fail

I lost my job in February. I didn't apply for unemployment because I had decided to go back to freelancing. I've done that before, and I had never applied for unemployment despite my bizarre work history.

I lined up several clients. Then Big Rona came, and I lost a client. Not all clients, mind you, but the most regular one that would have been "steady" income as close as you can get to that as a freelancer. This was a sucky moment, but then there was the CARES Act and the self-employed, normally unable to apply for unemployment, could get a little help.

I wasn't too keen. I don't like taking government money. It's not a judgment on anyone else but probably my own pride. Yet things were looking not so great and so I applied right away. That was the end of March.

The ND Job Service system rejected my application, along with all other self-employed people who, like most self-employed with rigid work-at-home get-it-done discipline, applied right away. Their system wasn't set up for it.

So, I took a crack at it the first Monday in April when they announced they were ready for the self-employed. I filled out everything, clicked on the four different links to four different tabs for four similar piles of information. Luckily, I keep spreadsheets and had accurate dates and numbers and could answer all the arcane questions. I only applied for assistance based on the one client I had for-sure lost due to the pandemic causing them to tighten their belt. I didn't want to make it seem like I had no income; it wouldn't have been honest to attribute anything lost but the one client I was sure about.

Then, over three weeks went by.

I still had a little work. Not much.

I finally called Job Service. The lady was polite and cheery and basically said "we don't know what to do with the self-employed applications so we're just waiting to hear from higher up what to do."

Glad she had a job, and apparent job security. Glad they could just sit and wait weeks for someone else to tell them what to do while self-employed people wondered what was going on and if they would have enough income. I am in an entrepreneurs Facebook group, and many others were in the same boat and quite frustrated. We were exchanging information, but it all came down to that: Job Service didn't know how to handle the applications, so they just sort of didn't do anything with them.

Finally, in a press conference, Governor Burgum announced that Sen. Hoeven had instructed Job Service to get moving on it. I'm guessing some of the self-employed became so frustrated they went to their Senators to kick some behind.

A few days later, I got a letter in the mail from Job Service. It announced they had received my application.

Four weeks after applying.

Then, a few more days later, I got another letter that said what I might be eligible for. I read it. I logged into the ND Job Service UIICE portion of the site where I had applied. I followed the instructions to get to the page to certify. It's a calendar. It looked basically like this:

Huh. Now what?

I clicked all over trying to figure out where I was to certify. Some stuff I clicked on wasn't a link. I had to not use my browser controls because the website couldn't handle that. I clicked tabs, links in tables, things that looked like links but weren't actually...ultimately, it was this calendar.

I gave up. I decided I would just have to live off of my savings and keep trying to find more clients and just acknowledge that being a government worker pays great and has pretty good job security, but being a government waiting taxpayer hoping to get a little help was a joke.

You know, I'm pretty good on the internet. Heck, even the old, crappy late 1990's internet is familiar to me. College was Unix, after college was dial-up and Napster at home, then DSL. I made websites, remembered dealing with Netscape Navigator 4 -- the whole shebang. But the North Dakota Job Service site is a classic example of wonky coders far outnumbering UI designers, developing a table fetishist text heavy font-mixed over-highlighted pile of crap that shouldn't exist right now. It probably used COBOL.

"There's no place to do this."

"Yes, I made a button. You just have to go to the menu, click the link, scroll to the bottom, read the paragraph of instructions, click the link, and then at the bottom of the table there is the button. It works just fine."

Technically the Flinstone car would get you around, but I wouldn't want to take a long trip with it.

Anyway, the first week I was to certify was in April, though I didn't get my letter until May. When I opened the page for certification, I saw a blank calendar. I'm not going to tell you how many times I took a crack at this, but nothing seemed logical.

Finally today, I clicked back to April. I want you to note that in all of this page, besides the tabs on the top which aren't about certification, the only clickable thing was the word "certify", in possibly size 10 font, on the calendar. The calendar controls, yes. The words? No.

Now, this calendar screenshot above shows that I finally got all my weeks certified up to May. Through this whole experience, there were pages with underlined words that looked like hyperlinks but were not and were instead yet another way to highlight important information. To some coding geek's mind, everything is important information and after a while, when everything is important, nothing is.

Are you even kidding me right now, North Dakota?

You don't make everything important.

You don't underline anything that isn't a hyperlink if you have hyperlinks that are underlined.

You have a style guide for how you lay out a page so that people understand what colors, fonts, and other indicators mean.

If the most important thing you have to say is not use your browser back button, you seriously did it wrong. Putting up warnings is not a fix to crap website coding and design. It's like walking into a store right now and there's a wall of pandemic-related signage that's on different colored paper, different fonts, arrows, clip art -- you just stop paying attention.

Your solution to get people to do something, or when you add a new feature, isn't to make the world look like Microsoft Access and Microsoft Frontpage had a one-night stand and spawned a bunch of shadow-outlined tables, random buttons, and another chunk of text indicating yet more instructions. EVERY NEW FEATURE, INSTRUCTION, OR REQUIREMENT MUST FIT INTO THE CURRENT DESIGN AND WILL LIKELY REQUIRE MORE THAN JOHN DOE THROWING A FEW SENTENCES IN BOLD AND YELLOW HIGHLIGHT TO MAKE SURE THE PLEBES JUMP THROUGH THE RIGHT HOOPS TO GET THE MONEY THEY PAID IN OUT OF THEIR PREVIOUS PAYCHECKS IN UNEMPLOYMENT TAXES.

Maybe this is what will finally get this dog of a website whipped into shape, having a bunch of freelance writers and designers who tend to work in this area descend on this shambles and demand it be brought into this century. The most important piece of this whole pandemic was this particular state site, and it is a huge fail. Almost every other North Dakota state website is being brought up to current standards, but this dinosaur still lives on. I bet you could file an unemployment claim by phreaking, the site is so old. 

Beyond the horrible site design, absolutely unintuitive UI, and seeming desire to fulfill the secret longings of some government employee's heart who love to feel powerful by burying human beings already in a point of hopelessness and shame through scoldings of "you didn't fill it out in triplicate" and "you didn't click that link in time" and "we sent you a three page letter full of text to tell you how to do this," is the reality that the self-employed are not at all understood.

First, this state has a lot of self-employed and gig workers. It's not just freelancers like me, but anyone who owns their own business. Some self-employed employ others. So their employees can get unemployment, but the owners don't. Freelancers, gig workers, contract workers -- whatever term you want to use -- are completely lost to the world of people clocking in and out with a paycheck or receiving a regular salary. They have no idea what it's like to pay double taxes (employer and employee, basically), and be on your own for any "benefits" you might have. 

I'm guessing that ND Job Service has zero understanding of the self-employed because why would they? We don't get unemployment when our clients go away. So sure, the CARES Act threw them for a loop, because not only were they working with an old hamster-run rubber-band server with a doggy interface that was probably pretty hot happenings back in 1999, but they had no idea how self-employed people work.

It was clear the system was intended for standard issue employment where there's a boss, a wage/salary, some hours, and easy peasy yes/no answers when you did and didn't work. Certify this week. Did you work this week. What did you get paid for that work this week. Did you turn down employment. What did you make this week. How many hours did you work. 

If you're self-employed, those questions are a bit ridiculous. I get paid, depending upon the client, by:
  1. Word
  2. Hour
  3. Project
  4. Quarter (on retainer)
The week I do the work I rarely get paid. Some weeks are stockpiled onto one invoice at the end of the month and so I actually might not have done any billable work the week when the income arrives. I could have done no work but got a quarterly payment and it's big...but no work hours are associated with the week I'm paid. 

If you're self-employed, you might take a small part-time job elsewhere, or you might weather the lean times because you know there's a flood coming, even when people say "well, if you don't have any clients just go get a job" because at some point, you'll either have to go all in on the job, or quit it to give the rush of clients the service they deserve. It's a strange beast.

When I applied for the unemployment aspect of this, I had a specific client that I lost, and I calculated what that would mean in lost income. I still had other clients, and certainly didn't stop hunting for more because one lost client is serious financial loss and I was looking to fill the gap. All of us self-employed were. We don't get vacation pay or look to our employer to send us a paycheck. We're on our own to find a source of income.

So, was I out of work? How do you view that for the self-employed who experience deluge or drought when it comes to income? How do you calculate that when one (but not all) clients specifically are lost due to a pandemic, may or may not come back later, you still have others, but you aren't making truly livable amounts and, as usual, you exist on a teeter-totter in which sometimes money goes into savings, somtimes it comes out, and while you don't end up homeless, you have to constantly work to get that teeter-totter to balance?

Here's what I know: at this point, the stupid Job Service can take the money I allegedly "qualify" for after paying taxes for years, and they can put it somewhere special. It's my tax money going into the pile, but as long as you guys who work there get paid by the taxpayers, whatever.

Build a website that doesn't hate people. Because when they come to you, they already feel like a failure or loser and then your garbage site reinforces it. User experience matters, and even more so on a site where people who have lost their job are trying to find hope.