Sometimes self-service is hard

Once you have got your customers into a self-service channel, it’s quite a good idea to try to keep them there.  Sometimes things go wrong, sometimes systems are down, sometimes users do unexpected things.

So you need error messages.  Ideally ones which tell the user what is wrong, what they need to do to fix it or when the system will be responsive again.

Error : TICKETBOOK_EXPIRED somehow doesn’t quite do the trick.

The block capitals and the underscore signal pretty clearly that this is something which has floated up from the depths of the system and was never really intended to see the light of day.  But here it is, untamed and untranslated.

Perhaps they want more calls to their helpdesk.

 

Googling on the error text reveals that it has existed in exactly this form since at least 2005 without being translated into English.  Now somebody has got frustrated enough to rise to the challenge:

What this error message means is that somewhere on your computer the online filing service has left a cookie which corresponded to a previous session. In other words, HM Revenue & Customs have a crap online filing website which doesn’t adhere to standards or best practices. The software that HM Revenue & Customs use (you know, the one that that costs us all £300,000,000 per year for ten years) simply does not handle sessions correctly. It’s broken. An internet search for this error message reveals this particular bug has been known about since at least 2005. There is no public acknowledgement or fix (at least that I could find). The solution by the way, is to delete all your cookies and internet temporary files.

Come on, people! Telling your users “Error: TICKETBOOK_EXPIRED” is close to the most unhelpful thing that you can do. You might as well say, “Error: We can’t be bothered to write a decent explanation of what just happened, but something went wrong and we’re going to be really, really ambiguous about it. It doesn’t involve tickets or books and only a handful of people in the world will understand this, but here: Error: TICKETBOOK_EXPIRED“. I know this will probably be blamed on your software contractors, Cap Gemini (replacing the original developers, EDS), but somebody had to write the functional specification and someone else had to sign it off on behalf of every taxpayer in the UK. Somewhere along the line, someone from HMRC approved this message. Since the solution to this problem is so simple (delete your cookies & temporary cache), why couldn’t the message have said, “There was a problem accessing the online site. This is because the temporary files this site downloads to your computer are out of date and need clearing. Please follow these instructions to clear your temporary internet files and try again or use another computer. Please contact help@hmrc.gov.uk or call: 12345 if you need any further help with this”.