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malevolent design weblog

This blog is now defunct, but you can find more stuff over at my personal site

It’s Complicated

One recurring theme I’ve encountered in helping organisations move data and services onto the internet is how it shines a harsh, revealing light on things assumed to be simple offline.

Merely shifting a small form online can raise countless issues relating to workflow, terminology, data formats, privacy, etc. And as for that motley collection of Excel spreadsheets that everyone’s used to run everything for years, well, abandon all hope ye who enter there.

A good developer will find ways to tidy most things up in the transition without imposing too many painful changes on the client, but it’s easy to unfairly be seen as someone obsessed with trivial details.

Here’s a selection of the kinds of things that tend to catch the eye:

Name & Title

Not everyone on the planet has a first_name and surname that can be wodged together in that order to produce full_name. If you want to allow for unusual names and non-Western conventions the only simple option is to ask for the full name (plus something like username/nickname/known_as in many cases), but this is unlikely to play nicely with any third-party integration.

Most new sites that ask for a title only do so as a sneaky way to collect gender data, and any existing offline data from spreadsheets etc. will usually need to be cleaned to fit a set range of options.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Royal Opera House site features possibly the most amazing title dropdown ever, currently featuring Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, Advocate, Ambassador, Baron, Baroness, Brigadier, Canon, Captain, Chancellor, Chief, Col, Comdr, Commodore, Councillor, Count, Countess, Dame, Dr, Duke of, Earl, Earl of, Father, General, Group Captain, H R H the Duchess of, H R H the Duke of, H R H The Princess, HE Mr, HE Senora, HE The French Ambassador M, His Highness, His Hon, His Hon Judge, Hon, Hon Ambassador, Hon Dr, Hon Lady, Hon Mrs, HRH, HRH Sultan Shah, HRH The, HRH The Prince, HRH The Princess, HSH Princess, HSH The Prince, Judge, King, Lady, Lord, Lord and Lady, Lord Justice, Lt Cdr, Lt Col, Madam, Madame, Maj, Maj Gen, Major, Marchesa, Marchese, Marchioness, Marchioness of, Marquess, Marquess of, Marquis, Marquise, Master, Mr and Mrs, Mr and The Hon Mrs, President, Prince, Princess, Princessin, Prof, Prof Emeritus, Prof Dame, Professor, Queen, Rabbi, Representative, Rev Canon, Rev Dr, Rev Mgr, Rev Preb, Reverend, Reverend Father, Right Rev, Rt Hon, Rt Hon Baroness, Rt Hon Lord, Rt Hon Sir, Rt Hon The Earl, Rt Hon Viscount, Senator, Sir, Sister, Sultan, The Baroness, The Countess, The Countess of, The Dowager Marchioness of, The Duchess, The Duchess of, The Duke of, The Earl of, The Hon, The Hon Mr, The Hon Mrs, The Hon Ms, The Hon Sir, The Lady, The Lord, The Marchioness of, The Princess, The Reverend, The Rt Hon, The Rt Hon Lord, The Rt Hon Sir, The Rt Hon The Lord, The Rt Hon the Viscount, The Rt Hon Viscount, The Venerable, The Very Rev Dr, Very Reverend, Viscondessa, Viscount, Viscount and Viscountess, Viscountess, W Baron, and W/Cdr. Phew.


See: “Gender is a Text Field” (Diaspora, backstory, and context)

Contact Details

Everywhere in the Western world has postcodes, right? Nope.

Everywhere you might want to ship something is in that country’s official address database, right? Not the last couple of places I’ve lived; many locations fall between the cracks.

Structuring an organisation’s contact data (internal or external) in a clean, normalised way can be challenging when there are multiple people at each location, some people are at multiple locations, some organisations are at multiple locations, some locations are split across sites, some phone numbers relate to people whereas others relate to locations or organisations, and so on.


See: Gay marriage: the database engineering perspective


So, there are some international events at certain times. We can take time zones into account when we store them, but what to do with them isn’t always obvious. For example, when sorting/filtering events (e.g. in chronological order, or to show a particular day’s schedule), should it use UTC/GMT (useful for a true global overview of the sequence of events) or local time (more useful for those who are probably near an event)?

Workflow Quirks

One organisation I’ve worked with renews all annual memberships on the same date. While this already applied offline, online it looks particularly odd and offputting, with anyone signing up in March paying for 6 months whereas if they wait til April it becomes a 17 month commitment (I can only think it’s due to them historically preferring a single annual mad rush to process membership vs. someone steadily addressing such things throughout the year).


Some organisations need to keep an accurate audit trail of everything they do. This sometimes means every scrap of data needs thorough versioning and the ability to reconstruct past states, or you might get away with snapshots of final output (web pages etc.) combined with activity logs.

Unshared Knowledge/Job Preservation

“Oh, you’ve made the new system mark that as processed? No, you see, on a Tuesday a star against it in the spreadsheet means it’ll be processed Thursday, you need two stars for urgent Tuesday processing or an underscore before the date for a Wednesday morning exception. No, it won’t be in the manual, I always do it when I copy and paste across from the Word documents before running the macros and FTPing the files into the right folders. How do we process things when I’m away? What do you mean..?”


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