First Direct Web Site

Here’s a good example of how not to design a user interface.

Yesterday I realised that I needed to pay my tax bill. My accountants had filed the return, it was just up to me to actually stump up the money. The deadline for payment is January 31st so it was a bit late to send the payment in by post, but I noticed that the payment slip included instructions for making an electronic transfer. It told me the sort code and the account number that I needed and told me which of the numbers on the slip I should use as the payment reference. Armed with this information I opened up the First Direct web site and found the section for making a one-off payment.

There are two routes through this section of the site. If you have all of the details that you need you can enter them directly but there’s also another route where First Direct have gathered a number (hundreds, it seems) of common payment details so that you don’t need to fill in all the numbers. That sounded like the easiest route, so I went that way. I soon found myself looking at a long list of potential payees. The problem was that their names were a bit cryptic so I wasn’t sure which one I needed. There were two that seemed to be for paying personal tax bills which were called “InlandRevCumbSelfAssessment” and “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment”. Now Shipley is a town in Yorkshire and my payslip said that my payment should be sent to Bradford which is also in Yorkshire and “Cumb” is short for Cumbernauld which is in Scotland. So I thought I knew which one to choose but I wasn’t 100% sure. And when you’re paying taxes, it’s best to be 100% sure that you’re paying the right people.

I selected the “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment” in the hope that the next screen would confirm the sort code and account number that were associated with this payee. But in the interest of simplification, those potentially confusing details had been helpfully left off the screen.

At that point I decided that I would be happier taking the alternative route and typing all of the required details myself. So I went back to the first page and started again. This looked better. I was given a screen that asked for all the details that I had. I filled in the details and pressed the “proceed” button. I was asked to check and confirm the details which I did. And then on the next screen it went wrong. I was told that First Direct already had those details in their system and that therefore I had to use that option and couldn’t choose to type in the details myself. Of course there wasn’t any indication of which of the list of names I should choose or (which would have been better) a link to a page that was pre-filled with those details. No, I just had to go back to my original guessing game. I chose “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment” and hoped that it was correct.

This morning, whilst running through the process again to ensure that this description was accurate, I discovered that “InlandRevShipleySelfAssessment” has been added to my list of previously used payees. And in the list it includes the sort code and account number. So I can confirm that my tax has been paid to the right place. Which is nice, but it was all a bit of a struggle.

Let’s review the problems:

  • The list of known payees is badly organised. The symbolic names that they have been given aren’t very clear.
  • When a known payee is selected, the next screen should contain the sort code and account number for the payee, so that a user can confirm that the correct selection has been made.
  • When a user chooses to enter the details, then why not let them do that? What is the point of saying that you must use the list of known payees for a payee that is on the list.
  • If you are going to insist on a user using the list of known payees, then you can at least make their life easier by telling them which of the known payees you are talking about.

I’ve always been a fan of First Direct. I’ve been with them ever since they started up and they’ve rarely done anything that has annoyed me. Even their internet banking service generally seems a lot better than most others I haveused. But in this case it seems that their interface designers were on holiday and this part of the site was designed by someone who had never given any thought to how someone might actually want to use it.

It should be illegal to design web site interfaces if you haven’t read Don’t Make Me Think (damn, I’ve just seen there’s a second edition out…)


  1. I came across that same problem with First Direct when trying to pay my credit card recently. The unforgivable bit is not letting you enter a specific sort code / account number if it is already hidden somewhere in their unreadable list. I gave up in the end and used a different bank account to pay it.On that note, if anyone is interested, I highly recommend the Co-Operative bank’s online service. It does everything you expect, in the way you expect.

  2. Sorry, but as you find with most banks, the details actually come from the inland revenue and other companies such as credit cards for people such as first direct to enter in their database.

    If you look on most bills, you will find that the main branch, especially for companies such as the inland revenue are located in cumbernauld and shipley, which is located on your bill.

    Working in an IT department, I find that most companies that receive such bad feedback are basically from customers that do not have a clue about what they are complaining about. Hence, you must be thick!

    Online banks will meet the needs of various different customers, so if you find that their is something that you dont like, other people might find that there is nothing they dont like! No company can make everyone 100% happy, its not possible.The co-operative banks internet banking is good, but yet the first direct one seems to be winning the awards which are voted for by the customers? Seems strange dont you think how it is the customers that vote and yet, it wins hands down.

  3. I totally agree. The payment system on first direct was until a few days ago the worst I had ever seen in my life. To put it bluntly, it seemed to have been designed by 11 year-olds. Aside from your tax payment example (which I have encountered as well, annoyed the heck out of me and I’ve complained about more than once), I’ve also been extremely annoyed by the fact that regular payments to the same payee but with changing reference numbers had to be re-entered from scratch each time you made a payment. You have to try really hard to come up with an idiotic design like that, if you ask me. The other online bank I’ve been using since the 90s would have gone out of business with an online payment system of such a low standard. Finally, in 2013, first direct are about as user friendly as other banks were in the early days of the internet already.
    Other than their tech incompetence, I quite like first direct! ;-)

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