Silicon Glen, Scotland > Web usability > Pants websites

Why the Direct Line website is pants

Go to the direct line site. In the event that you encounter a problem, such as a broken link, a browser incompatibily issue, something not working or even you want to tell them how much you like the site, click on the "email us" link.

Even an organisation of Direct Line's size, they are a part of one of the biggest banks in the world, has outsourced this feedback to a third party although you don't normally see this - the URL is hidden as a result of the way the popup window normally appears. I've revealed it here as

The first problem is that the user isn't normally aware they are being sent off to a third party organisation. However, more seriously than that is the fact that none of the problems discussed above are available as options. Instead it is assumed that the only reason you might want to contact the company is to make a product enquiry. Finally, not only is "technical faults" or even "other" not an available option, but all the fields on this form are mandatory. Yes, that's right you can't tell Direct Line about a technical fault without revealing your age. This goes against the third principle of the Data Protection Act which states:

"Personal data shall be adequate, relevant and not excessive in relation to the purpose or purposes for which they are processed". The wide definition of processing should be borne in mind when considering the Third Principle. In complying with this Principle, data controllers should seek to identify the minimum amount of information that is required in order properly to fulfil their purpose and this will be a question of fact in each case. If it is necessary to hold additional information about certain individuals, such information should only be collected and recorded in those cases."

It would be difficult using the above to justify why a date of birth, address, postcode and telephone number are all necessary to report a technical fault.

Direct Line feedback

However, the real issue here is that this isn't email at all. Like many sites they are misusing the term. Email is a protocol which complies with a standard known as RFC822 (and others). This defines the format of a mail message, such as the use of "@" in an email address, the allowed headers, the message content and the format of MessageIDs etc.

A form on a web which allows you to send a message to another party isn't email. It doesn't have to comply with any of the above standards at all, it could just result in the request being inserted straight into a database for instance. Instead of being an Internet wide communication, is usually just you entering details on a company's server only for the details to be stored on the same server once you press submit. No email protocols need be used, no email client is used and importantly for the customer no receipt for the customer is available. E-mail is about using an email client, such as Outlook, Outlook Express or Turnpike, composing a message using the familiar To:, From: , Subject: and message body and then sending it via your ISP to its destination using the familiar syntax. It's also an asynchronous protocol which means that if the person's machine you are mailing is unavailable, your message will queue and retry.

Entering details on a webform, uses web protocols rather than email ones, doesn't use an email client and is a synchronous protocol which depends on the webserver with the form being available at the exact instant the form is submitted. If the webserver is down, you can't queue your request automatically.

People like email because it uses applications they are already familiar with. They also get to keep a copy of the correspondence themselves if they want to, and can easily retrieve and resend the message if the company fails to respond. Webforms tend to annoy because each one is different, and there is often an undue demand on filling in "mandatory" fields, many of which may be irrelevant to the problem in hand. Webforms depend on the site being up and compatible with the person's browser. It is also a requirement under the Which? Webtrader code of practice to publish an email address rather than have a webform which people can use to contact you. Webforms do have some advantages, especially for secure encrypted communication but this is also available with E-mail and PGP and has been so for many years.

So if Direct Line provided an email address on their Email Us section of the site, this form wouldn't be an issue!