Silicon Glen, Scotland > Web usability

Courtesy Titles - their proper use and website design guidelines

Being courteous or breaking the law?

Do you need a courtesy title? Do you want one? If so, do you get the title you want, such as "Dr" or "Reverend" ? Do you think they should be confined to the dustbin of history? Did you know that laws in both the UK and the US on gender discrimination and data protection may require you to make courtesy titles optional on your website?

Some history

I've been online in the UK since 1983. In all that time, the standard form of address online was as it is in much of America - first name. Dear Craig was fine or Dear Craig Cockburn for a bit more formality. Dear Mr Cockburn was completely laughable and Mr Cockburn was used to convey humour, and here's another example. However back in 1991, well before the web became popular, we had the first rumblings and again in 1993 of what would happen when the "traditional" world was to go online. The Internet was an informal medium where surnames were only used to write address labels. You can happily look through the Google archives of usenet to see the informal standard in action and across international boundaries. The most usual use of a title on usenet was to offend someone in a flamewar.

The same was true when I went to work for an American company in the UK. 120,000 employees and everyone from the CEO Ken Olsen to new hires at the bottom of the corporation was called by their first name and perhaps their last name too. Dear Craig was fine there. On the front of an envelope "Craig Cockburn" (no silly "Esq" at the end or "Mr" at the front was used, or necessary).

Banned by the law

Hardly surprising from an American company though, the US Constitution (Article I, Section 9) expressly forbids the granting of titles according to an article in Washington Life on titles, and they are optional under the Federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act. This Act states that you cannot by law require someone to give a title as doing so could form the basis of sex discrimination. Titles of nobility are also banned in Canada as well as in many republics and their use can cause major diplomatic rows involving heads of state. Also, credit card application forms almost universally allow the title to be dropped from how your name appears on the card, in response to public demand. The routine use of the title Mr for every male browsing a UK site also causes legal problems when viewed in The Netherlands. In the Netherlands the title "Mr." denotes someone (male or female) with a law degree. It would be improper - in certain circumstances perhaps even illegal - for someone without a law degree to use that title.

Misuse of titles

Esquire. How laughably datable that is now, yet only 30 years ago it was routinely added to every UK male's surname without thinking. What most people didn't realise though is that if you don't care about courtesy titles then you probably don't want a redundant suffix on your name and if you do care about titles and nomenclature then you probably already know that only a tiny proportion of men were actually properly entitled to use it. Fortunately Esq. has rapidly disappeared from common usage, thanks perhaps to computers which require names to be in a standard form.

Defacto naming standards emerge

Suffixes rarely make an appearance on any web form now, perhaps to the annoyance of Bill Gates III. Nonetheless, the same standardisation which has seen suffixes dropped and "Christian" names renamed as First or Given names (thankfully), has also caused the title or name prefix to become mandatory for those constrained by old ways of thinking. Rather than being an optional courtesy title, you probably won't find an online insurance form which can be filled out without specifying that you are Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms. At least women have something of a choice and are asked what title they want. Men just get one regardless. It seems the customer is always right except when it comes to using their name as it appears on their birth or marriage certificate. Website designers don't have the right to dictate to people how they should use their names and many users resent having their name altered because of a webform. Furthermore we live in an increasingly diverse society where people with different cultural backgrounds or names from different languages all living together don't necessarily all conform to the same styles of address.

The good and the bad and have been held up as the models for good e-commerce sites since they began. Yet, more than 7 years later, few sites have learned from their example in flexibility and offering what customers want rather than what companies think customers must have. Neither site requires a courtesy title when registering on the site, placing an order or making an enquiry. Why then is it such a problem for everyone else? Other user friendly sites include VisitScotland, John Lewis and Swinton Insurance. Sites requiring a title whether you want one or not include Scottish Power, John Lewis(!) - no firstnames allowed here either, Argos, Homebase, Tesco, BT and Britannia Building Society. The order of merit award for total absurtity must though go to British Airways - check out the title list on the British Airways website!. Maybe it would be easier to just allow people to type the title in? Perhaps BA will be introducing drop lists for Given names and Surnames next, they seem to like them so much? This is really all rather bizarre really since over 1/3 of people in the UK do not use a title when it is made optional on a webform. You probably don't know that if they are mandatory on your site :-(

The web is an international medium. If your site caters for people from more than one country, particularly non English speaking countries, it is clearly reasonable to assume they might have a different naming style or terms. It is completely inappropriate to force the entire planet to conform to dated UK English language specific forms of address. A German would probably rather be "Herr" than "Mr". A Spaniard "Senor". A Frenchman "Monsieur". I won't go into Japanese and the seven levels of Keigo here, reader-san. You only have to look at none other than the BBC to see that foreign languages titles still apply when speaking in English, there's plenty Herrs and Monseiurs in this history article, and this news article on France. This means that non English speakers browsing your site should keep their native language titles rather than assuming an English form of address.

It isn't all formality, Americans tend not to bother at all with titles and this is enshrined in style guides - the widely used Associated Press Stylebook, 1980 standard stated that a title should only be used if there is no first name. However, this was recently changed so that titles will not be used at all by the Associated Press. This quote regarding the change is a lesson for all those who force titles to be mandatory:

"The change, which will be reflected in the forthcoming edition of The Associated Press Stylebook, reflects the preference of the vast majority of the news cooperative's newspaper members. Courtesy titles were eliminated several years ago in AP sports reports and in AP services for radio and television stations."

This change has been greeted with widespread praise, by some who felt the use of courtesy titles was outdated and sexist and "a convention that belongs to another era -- a pre-feminist time when a woman's marital status cemented her place in society".

Excuses, excuses

So why is it that all men are "Mr" when it comes to most UK websites? I can suggest three reasons:

  1. Using a title you can attempt to deduce someone's sex.
  2. You can use a title to construct a salutation when writing to them (the two are NOT the same - many men have the salutation "Dear Sir" even though they do not have the actual title of Sir).
  3. You do not cause offence by being unduly informal

Some reasons why the above are bogus.

Using a title you can attempt to deduce someone's sex.
Many people have the title "Dr" or "Professor" which does not reveal sex. If you need to know someone's sex (e.g. for a car insurance quote) then why not ask it? If you do not specifically require to know the person's gender then you are likely breaking the law by forcing them to reveal it through the mandatory use of a courtesy title. Here is the third principle of the Data Protection Act:

"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."

Storing my title means storing my gender. Storing my gender is excessive in relation to processing an order or credit card booking since both my credit card and the post office can operate without using titles. Clearly this is in excess of the "minimum required" and many companies have stated to me that they use courtesy titles to work out how many men and women use their site. I'm sure this statistical gathering is also incompatible with the above principle.

You can use a title to construct a salutation
For constructing salutations it's also wrong to assume everyone wants to be addressed as "Dear <Mr/Ms/Mrs/Ms> Surname". Amazon don't and remember they are still regarded by most as the model to follow. Even the BBC when writing emails use Dear <firstname> <lastname> and dispense with titles entirely. So do many other companies, I have hundreds of examples from the UK. It is important to realise that if you are using titles just to collect information on people's gender and this information is not essential for the fulfillment of the customer's order that you are required to tell the customer this as part of Data Protection Act regulations. This Act states that you can only store personal information essential to process the order, any "marketing" data must be supplied and the user given the chance to opt out.

The ancient formula of <title> <surname> wouldn't do much good for Sir Richard Branson. He is of course Sir Richard, not Mr Branson. Nor would it work for the television personality Professor Lord Winston who has two titles. How many forms cater for that? What about all those ranks in the army, navy or air force? If someone is a commander do you think they are happy to be called "Mr"? Do you want to offend all the Lords, Sirs, members of the armed forces, Dr's and Professors in your attempt to not cause offence?

You do not cause offence by being unduly informal
The final reason of not wanting to cause offence is clearly bogus as well. By having a limited subset of titles, you offend everyone whose title is not on the list, who speaks a different language, who has more than one or whose salutation does not conform to the standard formula. The correct salutation for someone whose title is "Bishop" is of course "Your Grace" and not "Dear Bishop ...". The latter just makes you look a bit silly. Perhaps the real reason is maybe just lazy programmers copying every other site they see rather than thinking about the site from the customer's perspective. More further reading on this for the purists from Debretts.

It is perhaps worth pointing out here that making any assumptions about a customer's name is always a very dangerous activity. Many companies for instance insist on abbreviating first names to initials. This could be quite embarrassing for a Patricia Ness, Penelope Nile, Rona Soul or Valerie Dee (perhaps named as such through marriage). The customer really does know best, just leave their name alone!

Flexibility and customer satisfaction

It isn't about being informal, it's about having the flexibility to meet customer needs. Some cultures, notably Japan and Germany tend to prefer more formality. However, other cultures, such as the US, Canada and Australia do not. It's not about forcing everyone to be informal, it's about trying to persuade webdesigners that there's a world out there with varying needs and by having a flexible webform you can cater for these needs much more effectively rather than assuming the world all has one naming convention. This means the title field should be optional and free text. So if your title is "Brigadeer" ,"Prof." "HRH", "President", "Lord" or "Inspector", you can type it in a box if you want to. If you don't, then no-one is forcing you. Furthermore, if you have a preference for a salutation such as "Dear Mr Smith", "Dear Craig", "Hi Sir Richard", "Bonjour Maurice", "Hola Manuel" or "Hey Dude" then you type that into a box too. This flexible and simple way is how Amazon works - see above note about Amazon being the leading example which others say is great but still choose to ignore anyway. Having one field is also very important if you do not want to offend over one fifth of the world's population who write their surname first (including China and Japan). What would writing Smith John rather than John Smith do for your customer care? Having two fields does not allow you to concatenate them in the correct order, whereas asking someone to enter their full name uses their preferences rather than your assumptions. With one field you can easily accommodate all nationalities, naming preferences, name orders, suffixes, and titles. Amazon manage this, why is it such a problem for everyone else?

DON'T whatever you do still require titles to be mandatory but put in an option "Other" in the title list box. "Other" means "I don't use a title or my title is not on the list", not "Other is the letters in front of my name". I have received an embarrassing number of letters addressed to "Other C Cockburn" from web sites who won't be getting much repeat business from me. Do these people actually test what they write?

Your software should be flexible enough to deal with people who choose not to use titles, after all it's their choice. More immediately though, if your customers correspond with you directly by mail then you are walking on a minefield if your database requires them to have a title. Do you want to be the one who has to explain to your director why half the customers with unusual first names have been assigned the wrong gender and been embarrased as a result? People don't use titles in emails. Customers mail you, your database requires them to have a title, for foreign or unusual names you guess and get it wrong 50% of the time. Is this good customer care? In order to accommodate this you must assume the courtesy title is optional and write your salutations using the customer's title and first initial or name in front of the surname, e.g. Dear Craig Cockburn or Dear C Cockburn. A lot better than Dear Cockburn, because no title has been given. The style of Dear <firstname> <surname> is already very widely used and has been so for many years.

So, if you really want to be courteous to your customers from around the world, ask them how they want to be addressed. Don't assume one tiny subset of English language forms of address caters for everyone on the planet. Do I have to mention Amazon's example again here?

That old webform you had which had the drop list of title, firstname and lastname and used it to construct a salutation. Dear Webmaster. Throw it away! At Once! Yes that was so much better than writing Dear Mr Webmaster or Dear Ms Webmistress wasn't it?

How to ask someone's name then

How to design a form to ask someone's name - Web design 101.

Name: [_____________] (one field). As used by and
This handles:
Craig Cockburn
Dick van Dyke (American)
William Gates III (American)
Iain Mac a'Gobhainn (Scots Gaelic)
Chris van der Kuyl, Leading Scottish Entrepreneur
Petr ten Hove (Dutch)
Note: The surname in some of the above examples does not begin with a capital and it comprises more than one word. Having one name box also handles "Prince", "Madonna", "Cher", "Sting" and "Meatloaf" just incase you'd like them as customers :-)

Next, you can ask the customer how they would like to be addressed, although note that the default of Dear <firstname> <lastname> may well be sufficient depending on your site and is widely used by many including the BBC.

How would you like to be addressed? e.g. Dear Craig, Dear Mr Smith, Hi Bill, Greetings Sir Richard.
Salutation: [___________]

That pretty much caters for most websites. However, if you need to go a bit further you could ask the person's sex:

Are you [] male or [] female.
This is much more effective than working it out from "Dr" or "Reverend". Note there aren't that many cases where you genuinely need to know the person's sex, e.g. a Car insurance quote. If you would like the person's sex in order to file them appropriately in your marketing database for junk mail, then of course such information should only be given voluntarily. If you need titles for CRM purposes, you don't need everyone to supply a title, you can work out the proportions from those who have.

Next, the bit about titles. How about this:

If you prefer to use a title in front of your name, e.g. for an address label, please enter it here: [_____]

So, in four easy questions you've catered for every language, every title, both sexes, every level of formality and developed a flexible international website which greets people in a way they choose. If you must store surnames in a separate field, e.g. for integration with legacy systems (isn't that your problem rather than the customer's?) then you can deduce if from the above and present it to the customer with a chance to correct it if necessary. The above can even handle the form of address favoured by the traditionalists where a woman might be called "Mary Smith" but be addressed as "Mrs John Smith" (although hopefully we'll soon see the end of that sexist nonsense).

What are your views on selecting a title on a webform? Please select the option below nearest to your preference.
Mandatory and from a huge drop list containing every possible title in every language (billions of combinations)
Mandatory and from a list of the most common English titles
Mandatory and free text
Optional and free text (as suggested here)
poll now closed, view the results below
View the poll results

See also

Craig Cockburn created this page on 5-February-2006 at 00:18:20