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Issues with the Universal Credit application website
Aug 12, 2013 // Universal Credit //

OK, my first post on my new blog so here we go!

I have been paying a keen interest in the Universal Credit application website. For those reading who do not know, Universal Credit is a new benefit which replaces 6 existing benefits with a single monthly payment. This benefit is being rolled out across the UK between October 2013 and should be complete by 2017.

To apply for the benefit, users MUST complete an online application, there is no paper version available, in some very exceptional circumstances there will be a telephone application process available. This in itself is a huge shift in how the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) are processing benefit claims going forward. This topic will not be covered in this post, although there is a lot to discuss around benefit claimants having access to online services or the IT skills necessary to complete the online form. Perhaps one for another day!

universal-credit-laptop

What we are looking at here is the website itself. In my opinion there are 3 key issues with how the application works.

1) Mobile Optimisation.

There are plenty of stats being thrown around referencing how Social Housing customers are accessing the Internet (if they are at all). These stats tend to show that the number of people accessing websites from mobile phones and tablets is on the increase versus those accessing services via a PC and a traditional broadband line.

In order for a service website to show correctly on a mobile phone, there are, in general, 3 options.

i) Responsive CSS Design (my personal favourite method). This involves creating the css stylesheets (files in the background of a website that control how the website looks on a display) in a way that responds to the device that the site is being viewed on. Responsive design can not only change colours and formatting, but change the dimensions of a page, change how an image or a menu system is displayed and much more. This makes it easier to interact with the website regardless of how the user is accessing the site.

ii) A mobile optimised website – this involves creating a separate website for viewing on mobile devices. This should take into account the available screen real estate on a mobile device and the website be design accordingly. When a user visits the website a small piece of code identifies if they are coming from a mobile, if so, displays the mobile version of the website. Whilst this is easier to setup than responsive design, it is much more work in the long run having the update and maintain what is in effect 2 different websites.

iii) Create an ‘app’. Some organisations will offer an app, which is basically their website with an external wrapper around it to make it into an app which is then available to download from the relevant app store. In my opinion, an app should have user functionality not just display a website. A website is not an app.

There has been talk and rumors that the DWP is currently not considering any of these options which indicates that the application website may not be mobile optimised at all. I cannot either confirm or deny this since I have not yet been able to fully explore the application but if this is correct, it will cause problems for those trying to apply via a mobile phone as it will be extremely difficult to navigate a full site this way.

2) All or nothing application

Once a user has started the application, they are required to complete and submit the form in one go. The form is a not straight forward and does require a lot of personal information. Those with low IT literacy skills could find themselves sat in front of a computer for quite a few hours in order to submit the application once it has been started.

I am at a loss as to why the application has been designed in this way. Why have the DWP not designed a ‘save and continue later’ option? This is not difficult. If they do not wish to hold partially completed applications on the live system, then why not design a holding database? As users are entering the details onto the form, the data would be held in the temporary database where they could save their progress and return later to process it some more. Once the application is complete, they click submit and the application held in the holding database is transferred to the live system and processed as a new application. It really isn’t that difficult and you will find many websites doing this very same process.

3) Empty fields cannot be handled

This is my main annoyance with the website because it is such a fundamental flaw and so simple to fix!

Before starting the application form, users are required to go through a process to find out if they are eligible to apply for Universal Credit. The process is a simple one of entering the National Insurance number and the Post Code of the claimant. If they are eligible, they can then go onto complete the application form, if not, a message is displayed explaining that the system is being rolled out across the UK and they are not yet eligible to claim.

This is simple enough, has Universal Credit been rolled out in this area? Yes – continue to application, No – show message that claimant is not yet eligible. Whilst trying to access the application form to look for mobile optimisation I wondered if I could leave the NI number field and the Post Code field blank, I thought that maybe, just maybe, this would let me through to the application form. I was wrong, I couldn’t access the application this way, instead I found a major issue with the process. The eligibility check cannot handle the 2 fields being empty. Instead of a form validation script running to do a quick check that the fields contain data, the form is submitted with empty fields which the back end system clearly cannot handle. Instead of displaying a simple message “National Insurance number cannot be empty, Post Code cannot be empty” the site hangs.

I have created a video of this which is available below. Firstly I run through the process by entering a NI number and Postcode, you will see that the website very quickly tells me I am not eligible. Fine, all working OK. But then around 55 seconds into the video I start the process again but this time leaving the 2 fields empty, 1 min and 25 sec into the video I click the submit button. You will see in the video that the site then tries to process this, for an entire 2 min and 17 seconds. At 3:42 you see that the site then displays a message to say the service is temporarily unavailable and to try again later! See for yourself…

So I have said this is very simple to fix, to prove so, the code below is all that it takes to resolve the issue.

All that is needed is a small piece of javascript code being entered into the header of the page. This handles the checking process.

[code language=”javascript”]

// Eligibility check form validation script (c)Ed Bullock, Halton Housing Trust 2013

function validateDWPcheck()
{
var NIno = document.getElementById(“nino”).value;
var postcode = document.getElementById(“postcode”).value;
if(NIno==””)
{
alert(“National Insurance number cannot be empty”);
return false;
}

else if(postcode==””)
{
alert(“Post Code cannot be Empty”);
return false;
}

}
[/code]

Then, where the form appears on the page, add to the form Tag

[code language=”javascript”]
onSubmit=”return validateDWPcheck();”
[/code]

This will now check that both fields contain data before submitting the form for the eligibility check. If required it can be taken a step further to actually validate the entry to check that the National Insurance number and Post Code have been entered int he correct format (correct number of characters etc).

As you can see, very simple to fix, a few lines of code to be added and the site will no longer hang if the fields are indeed left empty.

Will be interesting to see what developments are made to the website, I for one will certainly be keeping an eye on it so watch this space!


2 Comments on "Issues with the Universal Credit application website"

  1. Peter says:

    What do you expect from a government IT system? Its poor design will be deliberate to make it harder for people to claim.
    I find it hard to believe that the companies designing the government IT projects are so inept that they can’t foresee such simple problems/solutions that you point out. Even a primary school pupil could do better.

  2. Interesting post, thanks.

    The application works OK – perhaps not brilliantly – on ios. Younger, nimbler people might find it easier than I did. I think .GOV are in general against mobile apps.

    I suspect that the all or nothing approach is to do with the identity assurance not really being in place yet – much simpler to force the applicant to do it all in one session.

    In any case, the software is to be pretty much re-written (in so far as the back ends are written at all). I made a few comments on the current application process here:

    http://digital.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/2013/07/17/the-pivot-from-publishing-to-transactions/#comment-42165

    Tim Blackwell.

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