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Courtesy Titles And Webform Design Recommendations

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Craig Cockburn

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User since: 10 Nov 2002

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Courtesy titles or offensive discourtesy?

The latest version of this article is available at

Do you need a courtesy title? Do you want one? If so, do you get the title you want? Do you think they should be confined to the dustbin of history? Did you know you could be breaking the law by making them mandatory on your website?

Some history

I've been online in the UK since 1983. In all that time, the standard form of address online was as it is in much of America - first name. Dear Craig was fine or Dear Craig Cockburn for a bit more formality. Dear Mr

Cockburn was completely laughable and Mr Cockburn was used to convey humour, and again. However back in 1991, well before the web became popular, we had the first rumblings and again in 1993 of what would happen when the "traditional" world was to go online.

The Internet was an informal medium where surnames were only used to write address labels. You can happily look through the Google archives of usenet to see this standard in action

and across international boundaries. The most usual use of a title on usenet was to offend someone in a flamewar.

The same was true when I went to work for an American company in the UK. 120,000 employees and everyone from the CEO Ken Olsen to new hires at the bottom of the corporation was called by their first name and perhaps their last name too. Dear Craig was fine there. On the front of an envelope "Craig Cockburn" (no silly "Esq" at the end or "Mr" at the front was used, or necessary).

Banned by the law

Hardly surprising from an American company though, the US Constitution (Article I, Section 9) expressly forbids the granting of titles according to this article in Washington Life, and they are optional under the Federal Equal Credit Opportunity Act, i.e. You cannot by law require someone to give a title if they do not want to. Titles of nobility are also banned in Canada and many other republics and their use there can cause major diplomatic rows involving heads of state. Also, many credit card application forms now allow the title to be dropped from how your name appears on the card, in response to public demand.

Misuse of titles

Esquire. How laughably datable that is now, yet only 30 years ago it was routinely added to every UK male's surname as if it was an essential part of their very being. What most people didn't realise though is that if you don't care about courtesy titles then you probably don't want a dated meaningless suffix on your name and if you do care about titles then you probably already know that only a tiny proportion of men were actually properly entitled to use it. Fortunately Esq. has rapidly disappeared from common usage, thanks perhaps to computers which require names to be in a standard form.

Defacto naming standards emerge

Suffixes rarely make an appearance on any web form now, perhaps to the annoyance of Bill Gates III. Nonetheless, the same standardisation which has seen suffixes dropped and "Christian" names renamed as First or Given names (thankfully), has also caused the title to become mandatory. Rather than being an optional courtesy title, you probably won't find an online insurance form which can be filled out without specifying that you are Mr, Miss, Mrs or Ms. At least women have something of a choice and are asked what title they want. Men just get one regardless. It seems the customer is always right except when it comes to using their name as it appears on their birth or marriage certificate. What makes you think that as a website designer you have the right to dictate to people how they should use their names? Furthermore we live in an increasingly diverse society where people with different cultural backgrounds or names from different languages all living together don't necessarily all conform to the same styles of address.

The good and the bad and have been held up as the models for good e-commerce sites since they began. Yet, more than 7 years later, few sites have learned from their example in flexibility and offering what customers want rather than what companies think customers must have. Neither site requires a courtesy title when registering on the site, placing an order or making an enquiry. Why then is it such a problem for everyone else? Other user friendly sites include VisitScotland, John Lewis and Swinton Insurance. Sites requiring a title whether you want one or not include Scottish Power,

John Lewis(!) - no firstnames allowed here either, Homebase, Tesco, BT and Britannia Building Society. All rather bizarre really since over 1/3 of people in the UK do not use a title when it is made optional on a webform. You probably don't know that if they are mandatory on your site :-(

The web is an international medium. If your site caters for people from more than one country, particularly non English speaking countries, it is clearly reasonable to assume they might have a different naming style or terms. It is completely inappropriate to force the entire planet to conform to dated UK English language specific forms of address. A German would probably rather be "Herr" than "Mr". A Spaniard "Senor". A Frenchman "Monsieur". For Americans, they often don't bother. I won't go into Japanese and the seven levels of Keigo here, reader-san.

Excuses, excuses

So why is it that all men are "Mr" when it comes to most UK websites? I can suggest three reasons:

  1. Using a title you can attempt to deduce someone's sex.

  2. You can use a title to construct a salutation when writing to them (the two are NOT the same)

  3. You do not cause offence by being unduly informal

All three reasons are completely bogus. Many people have the title "Dr" or "Professor" which does not reveal sex. If you need to know someone's sex (e.g. for a car insurance quote) then why not ask it? For constructing salutations it's also wrong to assume everyone wants to be addressed as "Dear <Mr/Ms/Mrs/Ms> Surname". Amazon don't and remember they are still regarded by most as the model to follow. The formula above wouldn't do much good for Sir Richard Branson. He is of course Sir Richard, not Mr Branson. Nor would it work for the television personality Professor Lord Winston who has two titles. How many forms cater for that? What about all those ranks in the army, navy or air force? If someone is a commander do you think they are happy to be called "Mr"? Do you want to offend all the Lords, Sirs, members of the armed forces, Dr's and Professors in your attempt to not cause offence? The final reason of not wanting to cause offence

is clearly bogus as well. By having a limited subset of titles, you offend everyone whose title is not on the list, who speaks a different language, who has more than one or whose salutation does not conform to the standard formula. The correct salutation for someone whose title is "Bishop" is of course "Your Grace" and not "Dear Bishop ...". The latter just makes you look a bit silly. Perhaps the real reason is maybe just lazy programmers

copying every other site they see rather than thinking about the site from the customer's perspective. More further reading on this for the purists from Debretts.

Flexibilty and customer satisfaction

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not insisting that everyone must drop titles forthwith. After all that would make me no better than the sites which insist everyone must have a title. No, all I'm saying is that the field should be

optional and free text. So if your title is "Brigadeer" ,"Prof." "HRH", "President", "Lord" or "Inspector", you can type it in a box if you want to. If you don't, then no-one is forcing you. Furthermore, if you have a preference for a salutation such as "Dear Mr Smith", "Dear Craig", "Hi Sir Richard", "Bonjour Maurice", "Hola Manuel" or "Hey Dude" then you type that into a box too. Difficult isn't it? NOT. After all, that's how Amazon works - see above note about Amazon being the leading example which others say is great but still choose to ignore anyway.

Oh and DON'T whatever you do still require titles to be mandatory but put in an option "Other" in the title list box. "Other" means "I don't use a title or my title is not on the list", not "Other is the letters in front of my name". I have received an embarrassing number of letters addressed to "Other C Cockburn" from web sites who won't be getting much repeat business from me. Do these people actually test what they write?

So, if you really want to be courteous to your customers from around the world, ask them how they want to be addressed. Don't assume one tiny subset of English language forms of address caters for everyone on the planet. Do I have to mention Amazon's example again here?

That old webform you had which had the drop list of title, firstname and lastname and used it to construct a salutation. Dear Webmaster. Throw it away! At Once! Yes that was so much better than writing Dear Mr Webmaster or Dear Ms Webmistress wasn't it?

How to ask someone's name then

How to design a form to ask someone's name. Webdesign 101 (for beginners).

Name: [_____________] (one field).

This handles:

Craig Cockburn

Dick van Dyke (American)

William Gates III (American)

Iain Mac a'Gobhainn (Scots Gaelic)

Chris van der Kuyl, Leading Scottish Entrepreneur

Petr ten Hove (Dutch)

(note: The surname in some of the above examples does not begin with a capital and it comprises more than one word).

Next, ask the customer how they would like to be addressed:

How would you like to be addressed? e.g. Dear Craig, Dear Mr Smith, Hi Bill, Greetings Sir Richard. Salutation: [___________]

Hard, isn't it?

That pretty much caters for most websites. However, if you need to go a bit further you could ask the person's sex:

Are you [] male or [] female.

Much easier than working it out from "Dr", isn't it? Note there aren't that many cases where you genuinely need to know the person's sex, e.g. a Car insurance quote. If you would like the person's sex in order to file them appropriately in your marketing database for junk mail, then of course such information should only be given voluntarily.

Next, the bit about titles. How about this:

If you prefer to use a title in front of your name, e.g. for an address label, please enter it here: [_____]

So, in four easy questions you've catered for every language, every title, both sexes, every level of formality and developed a flexible international website which greets people in a way they choose. If you must store surnames in a separate field, e.g. for integration with legacy systems (isn't that your problem rather than the customer's?) then you can deduce if from the above and present it to the customer with a chance to correct it if

necessary. The above can even handle the form of address favoured by the ultra traditional where a woman might be called "Mary Smith" but be addressed as "Mrs John Smith" (although hopefully we'll soon see the

end of that sexist nonsense).

Other usability nuisances

Country selection boxes

Why every book on usability says that you should not have an excessive number of items in a drop list so that you do not have to scroll unduly, yet every website designer somehow feels its necessary to put every country in an absurdly huge drop list when asking where you live (and few ever include Scotland or Eire). With Afghanistan at the top and commonly used "United States" and "United Kingdom" several hundred entries later, do you really think this is the best way to do data entry and form validation?

Annoying site logins

OK. Your pet dog is called Fido and you fancy it as a username for logging into a website. Maybe your surname is Smith or Jones or MacDonald and you fancy that instead? What about the name of the town you live in? Maybe your favourite username is your surname with your first initial? How much do you want to bet that with 50 million people on the internet that you'll get any of the above and be able to remember which one? No doubt you'll end up with Smith653 or maybe Fido94 or something memorable like JSmith123FidoNewYork. Ha! Bet noone's got that before. Bet you can't remember it though :-(

Worse, many sites restrict the username to a certain minimum length, a certain maximum length (CraigCockburn is too long for some) and force you to have a letter and a number and your name can't occur within the username and if you have a surname like mine you can't use it at all. Yes indeed, Cockburn is not allowed as a name in HotMail because of the first four characters in the surname, I have to use C0ckburn instead, as if that is going to make any difference to the pedants.

Look, lets get back to basics here. Usernames were great back in the 1970s when you connected up to a mainframe, there was no web or cookies and you used the machine to identify youself to that specific machine. These days, the equivalent use would be logging into your Internet Service Provider. However, once you're on the internet, you already have a unique ID, namely your email address. So what not use that? After all, I use my email address all the time, across multiple websites and it's unique. Why force me to have another "unique" login on a website which conforms to different rules, the memorable ones have all gone and it's something else I'm going to have to remember (or forget).

OK, so you have an email address as a login. Now what? Well email addresses sometimes change and if you've studied databases past Basic Database Design for Complete and Absolute Beginners you'll know it's probably not a good idea to make something that could change into your primary key. Primary keys are something which databases need to find rows in a table efficiently, there's no need to burden the users of your website with that though, they just want to log in easily. So allow users to change their email addresses if they use it to access your site.

Logins to websites can be as simple as Yahoo, Hotmail and Amazon or as complex as many banks seem to think is necessary. Strange that the bank logins are many orders of magnitude more complex than accessing the same information to the same bank over the phone. Bit like having 100 locks on your front door but only 2 on the back door - your back door is the weakest link, OOPS. Anyway, back to those logins you were reading about. Accesing a site is only about two things - one is you claiming to be someone and the other is verifying that you are who you claim you are. It's important to realise this - the first claim is the one which will set off any lockouts if the second claim repeatedly fails. So if your bank uses usernames, and someone else tries to use yours unintentionally then you'll get locked out of your account because of their attempts. Whereas if the bank used email addresses as the first stage in conjunction with an internal username then the combination of email and username is guaranteed to be unique, you can get a username you want and it's much less likely someone will accidentally try to login as you.

So maybe the next time you have a login sequence, make it start with an email address (which can be changed), add a password and then think about additional security as appropriate. That way we're all much less likely to forget the myriad of usernames we have across different websites. And give people clues: e.g. This field has to contain a letter and a number, or Your password is at least 5 characters etc. That way the user's memory is jogged and they don't get frustrated at not being able to log in.

Craig Cockburn has been using email since 1983, usenet since the late 1980's and in 1992 was listed in E-Mail Addresses of the Rich & Famous. In 1992 he wrote the UK's first guide to getting on the Internet and in 1994 he wrote the first online guide to Scotland. In his spare time he runs the Silicon Glen site.

Craig is a software development manager and company director.

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