CSA and the invisible ink

Most design is about communication. Equally, good communication takes some design, or at least a little thought.

And if it goes wrong, then communication can cease.

This last week or so I’ve had some fun hitting my head against a certain brick wall; in this case the Child Support Agency (or CSA) website.

I have a certain need to utilize this website to manage Child Support payments, and as anyone who has a similar need can attest, they can at times be a difficult organisation to work with. Part of the problem can be large numbers of letters with horrendously confusing tables of data which often seem to contradict one another – but for now I’m going to put the usability of their letters aside, since I’m talking about the method more than the content.

Some long time ag0 – from memory I’d guess maybe three or four years back – I was asked if I wanted to receive electronic letters rather than the printed ones. Thinking of the planet and of the huge amounts of paper I was receiving I agreed. And for a while, that seemed to work. I’d receive an email telling me I had communication from CSA, I’d log on to the website, and there is an Inbox. You see that you have a letter, you click on the letter, and there it is. Relatively simple.

But a few months in, some technical problem occurred and the website started reporting that some people were unable to open the letters. That included me so I stopped trying, expecting the problem to be resolved.

Skip forward, and years later here I am. I still, regularly, receive emails telling me I have communication from the CSA. I still, regularly, log in to the site and see the letters right there in the Inbox. The option to view them is now removed, with a clear note that this is a ‘temporary problem they are trying to resolve’. And there is an option to instead download it as a PDF.

But just as when this problem first occurred, there is a slight snag. The PDF doesn’t work either. You click on the link, a PDF begins to open, and then freezes. You can’t directly download the PDF due to the coding used. All you can do is click to open, and it gets stuck half way.

Not only that, but the system happily registers the click – and then marks the letter as read. You have then been recorded as having read and understood the letter, despite the fact you didn’t get to see a word.

And those ‘read’ letters are then removed. This happens on Firefox, Chrome and IE, so it’s not a browser issue.

Realising that I was potentially missing really key information I rang CSA a while back, and asked them if they had fixed the problem. I was told that they were ‘working on a solution’. That’s a no, then.

I also explained that I wasn’t receiving any of the letters they were sending me. I asked if there was any way they could send them to me in printed form. I was told no, those letters couldn’t be sent – and that since I’d chosen to go paperless, that was the end of it.


So there you go – I am now receiving a set of blank pages, and I’m unable to see anything I’ve missed, what a great user experience! Hopefully none of that invisible ink is telling me I’m about to go to prison for non-payment of a CSA amount. Let’s hope.

Gary Bunker

the Fore