Jan 22, 2010
One interesting way to understand more about problems in systems is to find something absurd, and analyse it. So here’s something absurd.
It’s nearing the end of January. Tax return time for many. We know where to go, of course: Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. So try this:
Things really are quite bad, aren’t they? It seems that no one ever predicted the bizarre scenario that a user might just be tempted to omit the increasingly-redundant ‘www’.
Quarterly, I do a VAT return. Despite knowing in my mind that the URL will fail, my fingers always forget. I have just a few moments of ????? then a little !!!!! and off I go. Putting in the www, and going on to what is actually a reasonably well-designed transaction.
No one dies. I waste a few seconds. I think it’s absurd. And life goes on.
But let’s stop and have a look at this in more detail. Technically, how long would the system reconfiguration take to make sure that a user – rash or wild enough to omit the www – still got where they needed to go?
A few seconds? A few minutes? No more than that, surely.
So that puts this issue (which has been known about for YEARS) firmly in the ‘absurd’ category. I remember it being discussed (along with potential hack workarounds) in March 2009 at the Rewired State Hack Day – although I can’t find a record there that anything came of this.
Why then, if there’s no technical impediment of any substance, are we still faced with this absurdity?
Although I’ve worked on various things with HMRC in the past, I’ve never found out the answer, so from here onwards is largely my speculation – but I hope it illustrates a few more general points about change. Particularly change as it relates to the mega-engines of UK government technology.
You need two ingredients for this change to happen, in the simplest analysis. You need:
- someone to be responsible for it happening, and
- a mechanism to put the change into practice.
Either of these fail, and you’re stuck with your absurdity. It may be that there is no one (of any seniority) who actually has as their formal role (that’s the one that performance will be measured against, typically) to ensure that top-level usability like this works. A big system like the HMRC website will have a zillion worker ants around it, many with very clear responsibilities for a particular piece of functionality. But something as obvious as the URL? You never know – there might not be. [Correction on this point very welcome indeed, by the way. If it's you, shout.]
So let’s assume (and it remains an assumption) that such a person exists. How is the change then made? In my experience that’s when things can get really nasty. Changes go into a queue. There’s always changes required to a system, large and small, planned and unplanned. There’s rarely sufficient budget and resource available to do everything when it might ideally be implemented. So things get prioritised.
It may be that this little configuration change to fix the URL is sitting in the bowels of HMRC, somewhere in one of these queues. I bloody well hope it is, by the way. But prioritisation is a funny business, and it is not inconceivable that this will never be deemed important enough (relative to other priorities) to be fixed. It may even be kicked into the long grass of “don’t touch until we do our next wholesale infrastructure/estate refresh in 20xx…”.
So, I hear you say, you being a rational, external, and FFS-roll-your-sleeves-up-and-fix-it type. Can’t we just get in there and do it ourselves? Can’t we buck this crazy system for the sake of something that will take no time at all and avoid MILLIONS of ????? -> !!!!! moments?
And that’s the real kick in the teeth. Because when we did all that clever procuring and contracting for the squillion-pound systems underpinning the website (and a lot else to boot), we made absolutely sure that it had Rules. Tight rules that were all about predictability, resource planning and keeping control. And those Rules dictate that under no circumstances will short-cuts be taken. These would take us into Unknown Territory, which might have Risks that could Jeopardise Things and lead to Terrible Consequences (and would have the Lawyers in and Feasting Merrily for some time from large Tubs of Blame).
I say ‘we’ above, because we need a certain amount of honesty about why we chose to do things this way. And that was about managing risks and costs. Viewed from that angle, it makes it very rational indeed to build Rules in this way.
Except when you need a small change doing which would make your very expensive system look immediately very much less absurd.
Go on, prove me wrong, HMRC. Pop a comment on here to pop my speculative bubble, and let us know who is responsible for this bit of user experience. Even better, let me wake up tomorrow, head to the #ukgc10 barcamp and have the massed hordes of government geek types admire the egg dripping off my chin because you flicked the switch that sorted it out.
Because I’d rather look stupid than persist with this sort of absurdity.
*You may find on some system/browser combinations, that there’s no error. You’ve been baled out by idiot-proof software that’s checked the www… version before giving up the ghost. And you’re wondering what the hell this post is about. Lucky you. But for millions of browsers, including mine here tonight on January 22 2010, it’s a big #fail.
Update: a quick suggestion from @nevali via Twitter – “you need a third ingredient: somebody who knows what the change actually means and is. this is usually most problematic”. Yes. I’d assumed that to be rolled into the responsible owner role, but it may not be. Point very well made.