Poor Usability on GRO Website

About time I caught up on blogging. One of the dangers of doing this stuff – particularly when it’s closely linked to your job – is that you risk opening yourself and more specifically the people you work for to publicity. What I mean is that if I was to write about what’s interesting and occupying me at the moment, I would be talking about things that my employers haven’t agreed to being in the public domain. With that in mind, whilst I’m excited and busy with usability stuff, it’s not something I can readily talk about.

So, I am struggling to find time to blog on personal usability gripes instead. However as one cost me money this morning I thought I’d share. My fiancée and I regularly do genealogical research as a hobby and with the recent upsurge in interest anticipated by the forthcoming second series of the BBC documentary “Who Do You Think You Are?”, we thought we’d get busy on the popular sites and get some certificates ordered in advance of the rush.

Like most UK-based researchers, we use the excellent (RedWeb designed, hullo guys!) 1837online.com to source the reference number of the certificate. Now, I knew that there’s an official place to order certificates from but couldn’t remember the URL so I Googled for PRO (Public Record Office) and ‘official birth certificate copies’ but I quickly realised I was going knowhere (I ignore pay-per-click ads as they are a distortion of my intentions). A quick scoot onto 1837 and I found the link, GRO (General Register Office), by the way. So, armed with GRO reference number and URL I went to the site. I recognised it as we’ve ordered certificates before and I guessed I’d have an account. Logged in fairly quickly (once I’d selected from my mental database of online passwords…). Now I was happily clicking away when I reached the death certificate form. I was dismayed to find I couldn’t exactly reference the index number that I’d obtained from 1837. This was a pain as it ensures you’re more likely to get the particular certificate you want. Without this code researchers have to do a semi-dumb search using details such as age at death and location. Disappointed (as I’d remembered I used to add it in the past) I proceeded to payment. Another shock. The advertised cost of £7 per certificate was now £11.50. Annoyed, I assumed this was the result of delivery charges which should be included in the total price. I paid anyway – I needed the certificate.

Unhappy with this I went back through the process to find out what I’d missed (or rather not been shown) … so, this is my route:

> GRO home page (click ‘Deaths’ image)

> Deaths Page (click ‘Obtaining death certificates’ in right nav box). Why is the right nav box formed of sentences? There are only 6 links here but it looks like a paragraph of text and the links aren’t obviously clickable because they aren’t coloured obviously. Would it not be better on the left of the screen (the most obvious place) and re-titled:

- Register a death…
- Change a death record…
- Register a death overseas…
- Remove a body from England or Wales…
- Find your local register office
- Get a death certificate

(The order should depend on what the metrics show them are the most accessed links)

I then reached:

> Obtaining death certificates page (scrolled down and clicked ‘order certificates online’ in the body text)

> Certificate ordering service page (4 clicks in now… clicked ‘order a certificate online now’ … thinking “I’ve already clicked on something that said this … am I going round in circles?”)

> Log-in page.

> Certificate Choice page. Now this is where I had the issue, I missed the selection radio button after question 7. This is defaulted to ‘no’ (the most expensive option) so if I miss it, I’m on to the £11.50 form straight away. As this is a key decision point, it should be highlighted and made clear. Ideally it would be the first question asked as it determines the application route you should take.

Overall the site is flawed from a usability point of view and provides a good example of where accessibility and usability are not necessarily the same thing. Whilst it is perfectly possible and reasonable to access this site in a DDA compliant way, for it to be more usable the customer has to configure their browser to amend the style sheet used. The failure here is in not anticipating the customer journey and considering the ‘user’ box ticked in their sign-off simply because the site’s design has passed a number of accessibility heuristics.

Of course, I’m at fault because I missed it but, in the words of Steve Krug “Don’t Make Me Think”. Trouble is, I have to use the site because I have to get certificates.

Interestingly, I believe the error occurred because I approached it as a familiar experience, not a beginner. I spent less time reading the pages and concentrated my energies on the transactional process of obtaining the certificate quickly. A case or more haste, less speed, but it does show you that there are alternative routes through the process depending on levels of experience and as many of these as possible should be supported.

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