OT post coming up....
I am so annoyed this morning as I've just had the misfortune to use the HMRC website (note it's http://www.hmrc.gov.uk, as it won't work if you type http://hmrc.gov.uk but that's a story for another day). After signing up for the online VAT service which, as it seems, I am legally obliged to do I was taken to the following web form which asks me to set up a series of 'shared secrets', so-called security questions that in the future may be used to verify my identity. The form looks easy enough, but the character limits on the left may give you a glimpse of things to come...

It's obvious (and important) to provide accurate, memorable answers - and boy did I try. The problem is that the HMRC website makes this near impossible, or in my case totally impossible. Here's why.

Note that I am using fictitious answers in the screenshot, but the amount of words and amount of letters (and spaces) I am using are accurate and identical to my actual answers.

As you can see the questions are very straight forward: name of first school, name of last school, a memorable place, a memorable date and a memorable name. Easy, right? Wrong. I got 4 out of 5 answers 'wrong' and couldn't figure out a way to make this evil form to accept my answers - and remember these are *my* answers, so technically there is no wrong value, only wrong formats as it turns out.

The first problem is that this form will not accept any spaces in any of the fields. That's problematic because my first school's name was 'Willi Graf Grundschule' which was not only too long (max 15 chars are allowed) but also contained spaces, so even after shortening it to 'Willi Graf' it did not pass as valid.
My last school (Otto Hahn Gymnasium) fared no better, for the same reasons.

The memorable place was slightly different since it did not exceed 15 characters, but still contained a space. I shortened 'Burke Hall' to simply 'Burke' which again failed, this time because the minimum length required was six spaces. I started going slightly insane at this point but managed to enter a memorable date correctly - awesome.

The memorable name however was yet again too short - I usually use my mother's maiden name here which is 5 characters long. At this point I gave up and rang the HMRC helpline. What I was told there beggars belief.

the chap on the other end of the phone clearly has had many calls like this already as his first question was more of a statement: "It doesn't let you input spaces, right?". Yeah damn right! And it won't accept my answers either - and I know they are correct, only I *can* know!
His suggestion: "Just omit the spaces." My jaw dropped at this stage. I explained to him that if I omitted the spaces my answers would not be correct, and should someone in the future ask me for the nth letter of my last school I'd give the wrong answers because clearly I would not remember at that point that I was forced to leave out the flippin spaces! He simply replied that I could always 'ring back at that time and they'd verify my details over the phone'. Ugh. Then why go through the trouble with the online system in the first place!?

I also suggested for me to simply 'use another memorable place and name, ones that fit into the character limits'. Now I don't know about yourself, but I have not got a whole lot of places and names that are that memorable, especially not second choice ones of a certain character length which do not contain spaces (my place of birth was another one I tried, invalidated by its space...).

I told the guy that I build web apps for a living, and that this form was a usability nightmare. I told him that there was no technical reason to not allow spaces, or impose a 15 character length limit. I can sort of understand the minimum length, but still this is a security question with one pre-defined answer that can't be changed (my first and last school's name is just that, nothing I can do about it), it's not a password which requires different attributes.

It quickly became apparent that HMRC was not giving a toss about this issue, not even saw it as something that needs addressing. When I told the chap that had I designed this form it would not have these restrictions he educated me that actually it would do since HMRC would have told me to design it within those guidelines (no spaces, min and max length etc). Oh dear me.

The take-away from this? Clearly the UK Government is giving its IT contracts to the wrong people, and/or giving flawed guidelines when it comes to online forms. Usability is not their strong points, to put it mildly. What annoys me the most though is that I am forced both online and on the phone to enter wrong details into a web form, just in order to get it to validate. I don't find this acceptable. Normally - if this was any old e-commerce site - I'd just be on my way, never to return again. But as a business I *have* to use this service to submit my VAT returns. What should I do next? I've still not submitted the form, but will have to do soon. Do you think there's any chance of HMRC fixing it?

Please link and tweet about this issue if you agree with my points raised. Maybe if we scream loud enough those above will listen?