Archive for June, 2013


Do you want two letters or not?

June 21, 2013

The frustration of online forms… Again…

I tried to register on a website, and was faced — yet again — with the ‘State’ dilemma (I’ll explain this dilemma later in this post).

In the screen shot below, I’m asked to enter my state or province and the user assistance tells me I can’t enter a city or zip code (really? into a ‘State’ field? who’d have thought?? But I digress…). The user assistance also tells me I can ONLY enter a two-letter state code or abbreviated province. But I’m not 100% sure what that means — only a 2-letter state code, OR an abbreviated province (with only two letters), OR an abbreviated province (with any number of letters). If they mean a two-letter code no matter whether it’s a state or province, then they should have written two-letter state/province abbreviation.


So I don’t enter anything in case the State or Province field changes after I select a country (yes, it happens sometimes). Instead, I go to the next field to select my country. Well, the State field didn’t change to reflect Australian states and territories, but I did get a reddish error message shouting at me telling me that my State must contain a minimum of two characters.


Now I’m REALLY confused. First I’m told ONLY two letters; now I’m told a MINIMUM of two characters (remember, a character could be a letter or number or any other symbols on the keyboard — it’s not necessarily a letter). And I haven’t actually put anything in to the State field yet.

What to do? Well, I think I entered CA for California, which was totally wrong for my selection of Australia as my country, but hey, it worked. Stupid bloody validation rules that no-one has checked!

I wonder how many people outside the US/Canada just give up…. How many sales do they lose every single day by people not completing the form and registering?

Now, to the State dilemma:

  • If you’re trying to reach a global audience — or even just an English-speaking one — then don’t put barriers in the way of people trying to register on your site or buy stuff from you.
  • Not every country has states or provinces. So if you’re wanting to attract people from around the world to your website, service offering etc., then DON’T make State a compulsory field; otherwise you’ll automatically prevent those people (some 6+ billion!) from buying your stuff.
  • Not every country that has states/provinces has two-letter codes or abbreviations for them. For example, Australia has two- and three-letter state abbreviations (NSW, VIC, QLD, SA, NT, TAS, WA, ACT). So don’t assume that every country is like the US/Canada otherwise you’ll p*ss off people who live in other countries as they won’t be able to complete your form and thus won’t buy stuff from you. Or they’ll protest in disgust by not bothering to go any further.
  • Not every two-letter state abbreviation is unique. I live in Western Australia, which is abbreviated to WA. Guess what? The state of Washington in the US is also WA. Yes, I’ve had snail mail go to Washington state looking for me before it came to Australia. If I enter WA on a web form, then it will no doubt be recorded as Washington!
  • Get the user to select their Country FIRST. If you put the State field on the form BEFORE the Country field (which is pretty much how everyone does it, and it’s based on addresses on paper envelopes — isn’t it time we let go of that on the web?), the user may get an error message about what they put in the State field before they can even choose/enter their country. But if you put the Country field first, the State field can be populated with the relevant list of states for the selected country (if the developer/designer has been smart).
  • If State is compulsory, ALWAYS offer an option for the outliers. ‘Outliers’ are the other 6+ billion people in the world who don’t live in the US/Canada! For example, if you let me choose my country, and you also have a compulsory drop-down list of states/provinces, make ONE of the choices something like none or outside the US/Canada or non-US/Canada or international or SOMETHING. Better yet, don’t make State compulsory, but if you have to, then at least have something those who live outside the US/Canada can choose.

Problem-solving chart

June 20, 2013

Warning: Coarse language


Seen on Facebook and copied from there. I’d love to acknowledge the creator, but I don’t have that information.



Spitting Coke

June 18, 2013

A bit of background to the screen shot below…

Regular readers of this blog know that I write the occasional ‘Writing Tips’ for my work colleagues, some of which I reproduce here after removing anything specific related to individuals or the company. I always get some nice emails back saying how much my colleagues appreciate these tips of mine — and how much they look forward to them.

One of the teams I work for has been working various sections of a single (very large!) document for more than a year (it’s still not ready). I only get to edit it every so often, so I’m not looking at it every day. But when I do edit it there are parts that make my eyes glaze over, so I don’t know how the authors can maintain momentum on it.

So, with that background, here’s an instant message exchange I had with one of the authors:


Well, it made me laugh ;-)


When to use non-Australian spelling

June 17, 2013

Based on a recent writing tip I wrote for my work colleagues (all of whom are based in Australia and thus use Australian English in their documents).


Bottom line:

  • The spelling used for [our] documents is Australian English, and our authority is the Macquarie Dictionary
  • Exceptions: Proper nouns, such as names of organisations, buildings etc. – you MUST use the spelling in the official name

K asked: Just a question about the International Organisation for Standardisation… we refer to this as ISO and I want to check if this is acceptable. The use of ISO is so prevalent that it is actually difficult to find it used anywhere in full.

My response, based on some research: It’s spelled ‘International Organization for Standardization’ (note the US spelling) and the abbreviation is ‘ISO’ (note the odd placement of the letters compared to the order of the words in full).

The ISO website shows the correct title/spelling/word order and abbreviation: They obviously get asked about this a lot as they’ve written a whole section on why it’s ISO and not IOS here: (see the subheading for ‘Our name’: ‘Because ‘International Organization for Standardization’ would have different acronyms in different languages (IOS in English, OIN in French for Organisation internationale de normalisation), our founders decided to give it the short form ISO. ISO is derived from the Greek isos, meaning equal. Whatever the country, whatever the language, the short form of our name is always ISO.’)

F asked: How do I deal with ‘centre/center’ in the name of a building/department/organisation etc.? e.g. ‘London Engineering Centre’, or the ‘National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’, or the ‘Marine Mammal Center’

My response: Both British and Australian English use ‘centre’ (US uses ‘center’) when referring generically to a building complex or to the middle of something, but when it comes to proper names such as in your examples, you MUST use the spelling of the official name, no matter what your language is set to or what your spellchecker says.

TIP: A quick check as to whether center/center is used as a generic word or a proper name is to see if it’s capitalised and surrounded by other capitalised words that are associated with it. If so, then it’s likely to be a proper name. Compare We went to the shopping centre this afternoon (generic; could be any shopping centre, anywhere) with We spent an afternoon at the Dubai Shopping Center on our way back from Europe (proper name; specific – there’s only one shopping centre with this name). In the latter example, you have to spell it as ‘Center’ as this is its legal name.

[Links last checked June 2013]


Affect v Effect

June 14, 2013

Based on a recent writing tip I wrote for my work colleagues.


Joe asked: Is it ‘result in adverse affects’ or ‘result in adverse effects’? Good question, Joe – and the answer is ‘effects’ in your example (‘adverse’ is the adjective qualifying the noun ‘effects’).

Affect/effect are a commonly misused, so here’s some guidance: Generally, affect is a verb (past tense: affected) and effect is a noun.

Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl; has this to say about each:

When Should You Use Affect? Affect with an a means “to influence” as in “The arrows affected Ardvark” or “The rain affected Amy’s hairdo.” Affect can also mean, roughly, “to act in a way that you don’t feel” as in “She affected an air of superiority”.

When Should You Use Effect? Effect with an e has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but to me the meaning “a result” seems to be at the core of all the definitions. For example, you can say “The effect was eye-popping” or “The sound effects were amazing” or “The rain had no effect on Amy’s hairdo”.

And our own Macquarie Dictionary has these definitions with examples of usage:


verb 1. to act on; produce an effect or a change in: The damp winters affected my chest. –Patrick White, 1976.

2. to impress; move (in mind or feelings): the poetry affected me deeply.

3. (of pain, disease, etc.) to attack or lay hold of: His lungs had been affected when he was a soldier in France when gas had been used in the fighting; –Hyllus Maris and Sonia Borg, 1985.

noun 4.  Psychology observable feeling or emotion, as linked to a thought process or as a response to a stimulus (opposed to conation).


noun 1. that which is produced by some agency or cause; a result; a consequence: the effect of heat.

2. power to produce results; efficacy; force; validity; weight: of no effect.

3. the state of being operative; operation or execution; accomplishment or fulfilment: to bring a plan into effect.

4. a mental impression produced, as by a painting, speech, etc.

5. the result intended; purport or intent; tenor or significance: he wrote to that effect.

6. (of stage properties) a sight, sound or, occasionally, smell simulated by artificial means to give a particular impression in a theatre.

7. a scientific phenomenon: the Doppler effect.

8. (plural) goods; movables; personal property.

verb 9. to produce as an effect; bring about; accomplish; make happen.

10. to produce or make.

phrase 11. be in effect, be in operation, as a law.

12. come into effect, become operative, as a law.

13. for effect, for the sake of a desired impression; with histrionic intent.

14. in effect, in fact or reality, although perhaps not formally acknowledged as such: he is in effect the leader.

15. take effect, to begin to operate, as a drug, etc.

See also:

[Links last checked June 2013]


Manual voting and data matching sucks

June 10, 2013

We had a state election back in March. I was in Texas on polling day, so I made sure I found out how to vote early (voting in state and federal elections is compulsory in Australia). In days gone by, you’d either do a postal or absentee vote if you weren’t going to be near a polling place for your electorate, and those options are still available. But at some point the Electoral Commission decided that early voting was a good idea too, and there were many places over this large state of ours that offered early voting a week or so out from the election, including at the Perth domestic and international airports. I chose to vote at a local court house some 25 km away (50 km round trip).

I duly turned up on one of the days I could submit an early vote, found the place (a rabbit warren maze!), filled in all the required forms, showed my ID, got my name crossed off the electoral roll, and voted. I asked if there was anything else I needed to do — according to the people running this polling station there wasn’t. And a few days later I flew to the US, knowing I’d done my duty as a citizen of this fair state.

So imagine my surprise when I got this letter in today’s mail (I’ve highlighted some bits in yellow):

electoral_officeWhat the…? Let me count the ways this is SO wrong:

  • They address the letter to my full name, yet call me ‘Dear Elector’. Already I’m not happy… How hard is it to do a mail merge with my name in the salutation?
  • They tell me that it appears I didn’t vote. Really? How about you look at your own records, dammit!
  • They tell me that this matter might have to be dealt with in court. Oh yeah. Let’s use a sledgehammer to hammer in a tiny nail…
  • They tell me that if I did vote, I have to tell them where and how I voted. Excuse me? Did no-one check the records submitted by the early voting polling stations before sending out this letter? If they had, they would have seen that I voted.
  • They tell me that if I don’t pay the penalty and if the ‘Commissioner’ is not satisfied that I did vote, I could still be fined. Actually, as I’m filling in Part A because I did vote, I’m assuming I don’t have to pay a penalty, though that’s NOT clear from this letter. But if the Commissioner isn’t satisfied that I voted, he/she could still fine me. However, I have NO PROOF that I voted as the polling station did not give me any sort of receipt with my name and date on it. Great. My word against theirs.
  • They tell me that I can’t settle ‘this matter’ by phone. I guess they don’t want to deal with p*ssed off and angry voters who have legitimately voted, but got sent this ‘respond or else’ notice anyway.

So, what went wrong and how could the Electoral Commission fix it so that these notices aren’t sent to those who really did vote?

I can only guess what went wrong (I don’t *know*), so here’s my take on it. I assume that about 90% of those who vote do so at their local polling place and get their name crossed off the electoral roll. Yes, crossed off, as in a pencil and ruler by a human being who has been looking at names all day! How high tech is that? But I digress… If about 10% vote at another location, put in a postal vote, vote early, do an absentee vote, or don’t vote at all, then these outliers aren’t physically crossed off the location’s main electoral roll. After the election, presumably someone at the Electoral Office has to manually match up the outlier situations with the main electoral roll and manually cross off the names of those who voted in another way. Once that is done, then someone also has to visually check for names that haven’t been crossed off and flag those people for receiving letters such as the one I got.

Alternatively, maybe it’s too costly for the outliers to be manually checked off the main roll, so maybe the Electoral Commission just sends out letters to everyone who didn’t get crossed off the main roll (that 10%) asking them to ‘please explain’. Once they get a response back, the Electoral Commission then knows which outlier list to check and cross the name off. Anyone remaining after that process has to pay the fine or go to court to contest ‘the matter’.

How incredibly time-consuming and fraught with human error this system seems to be! For years, I’ve advocated electronic voting, preferably via the internet. There are ways to make it very secure, and while the initial implementation would be costly, it has to be cheaper in the long run than paying people to staff polling booths, scrutineer vote counting, training them in these activities etc. for an activity that happens once every few years.

But more importantly, electronic voting, if implemented correctly, should automatically match an individual against the Electoral Roll, and ‘cross them off’ without the human error associated with a pencil and ruler, and without the chance of a bundle of outlier records being missed and therefore not crossed off.

Those of us who did the right thing and voted because they were going to be out of the country on election day get mightily p*ssed off when the Electoral Commission can’t get their records straight and send us a ‘please explain or we’ll take you to court’ letter. Especially as they did not offer any sort of ‘you’ve voted’ receipt at early voting polling station.

It’s the 21st century — why are we still voting like it was the 1800s?