Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Insurance Company Website

This company is a disability insurance company similar to Aflac.  I recently had the ‘pleasure’ of signing up for their online system and was presented with the following questions:

What is your father's middle name?
What is your mother's maiden name?
In what city were your born?
What is your mother's middle name?
What is the last name of your favorite grade school teacher?
What is the first name of your favorite relative when you were a child?
What is your greatest fear?
What is the first name of your best friend from childhood?
What was the make and model of your first car (Make Model: e.g. Jeep Wrangler)?
What was your first job (Company Name no abbreviations)?
What was the name of the first grade school you attended?
What was the name of your first pet?
What is the last name of your favorite author?

I usually try to avoid the easily-researchable things like parents middle names or my place of birth, and I couldn’t really answer any of the ‘preference’ questions since I liked many of my teachers, had several best friends in childhood, etc.  So right away lots of questions fail on ambiguity and sometimes privacy as well.

I was amused by the question “What is your greatest fear?” partly because it’s not a great question for me--my answer could be phrased a lot of different ways--but also because do you really want your customers thinking about their greatest fear while they’re visiting your website?  It just seems a bit weird to me.

I kind of liked the “What was your first job (Company Name no abbreviations)?” because it made some attempt to remove ambiguity by specifying exactly what it was looking for (e.g. not ‘cashier’ or ‘paralegal’) and how it should be entered (not using abbrevs. or ACRONYMS).  I could answer that but first I go onto other questions.

The next question is no longer a bad question for me:  I’ve gotten a new car since I last posted about this, so the answer to the question is no longer sitting in the parking lot outside my apartment.  So I put that in.

I put in my first grade school and the standard, made-up name of my first pet since I don’t really have a real first pet, and hit Continue.

It says that I need to fix the answer to my first car.  It doesn’t say why.  Not helpful.  I try again with the first company I worked for.  It makes exactly the same complaint!  l try a few other things before realizing:  Spaces aren’t allowed in your answers.  For a question that gives the example “Jeep Wrangler” that’s sheer jaw-dropping idiocy.  This apparently applies to all of the answers, so my answer for first job is also not allowed (and now you know that my first job has a space in it!).

I can kind of understand not allowing special characters in some cases, but what if your mother’s maiden name was O’Leary!.  It’s probably better to just ignore the special characters when comparing by stripping them out.  But a space is not a ‘special character’.  Even worse, they didn’t tell me what was wrong with my answer!  I had to figure it out through trial and error.  I’ve had that problem a few times with sites that don’t allow special characters in passwords too: Things don’t work, and they don’t tell you why, or even give an inaccurate error message like ‘invalid password’.  I once used a website that let me change my password to one with a special character in it, but then Javascript on the login page prevented me from entering that same password to access my account!

Best practices lessons:
1. Be wary of prohibiting special characters: there are quite a few questions whose answers will require them.  Names can have apostrophes.  Even if you ask for just a last name it can be hyphenated or even have two parts.  Companies names can have numbers in them (“Cash4Gold” for example), and sometimes they can even have foreign characters.  These cases may be rare enough that the user can select a different question if you offer plenty of choices, but not allowing a space in the make and model of your car is just terrible.

2. Give the user a useful error message if their answer isn't allowed for whatever reason.  It took me forever to realize that such an obvious and essential character as space was the cause of that vague error message.

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