Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Fedexing to Scotland

ThisIsBroken is a weblog which details daily examples of poor user experiences, usually with web sites. Yesterday, it had a report from a US user wanting to get a quote for sending a package to a Scottish address using Fedex’s web site. When she came to select the country however, Scotland wasn’t on there – she had to guess that Scotland is located in the United Kingdom which was what was on Fedex’s list.

Now some of your Brits will be thinking something on the lines of “silly yank” and that she should know that Scotland is part of the UK. But that’s not the point. She shouldn’t have to.

I don’t want to start an argument about whether Scotland is a country or not – it is, but it’s not a nation-state – but some people interpret it to be a nation-state. After all, Scotland has an international football (soccer) team, its own banknotes and its own parliament. So there’s confusion. And if you’re a company with a web site, those people confused about Scotland’s status may well be your potential customers.

The problem in this instance is that the form on the site was asking the user to pick from a fixed list of options. While that list could be expanded to include England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, by definition you would also have to add many other states, principalities and outlying territories to that list to catch all instances. There’ll already be over 100 entries on that list, another 100 or so and the list will lose its usability.

New Fedex 'select country' form

Therefore, I propose the above. Keep the list as people may well be used to using it, but below also have a text box where the user can type the country in. It needs to be made clear that the user is to choose one or the other, hence the bold ‘or’.

The ‘validate’ bit is important to ensure that the system gets it right. The user can enter any country that isn’t on the list, and the system will then suggest the correct country below – type in ‘Scotland’ and it’ll give “United Kingdom (Scotland)”, since it’s going to the UK and will stop people unfamiliar with the concept of the UK from complaining on the lines of “I want it to go to Scotland, not the UK! Stupid system.”. To give a US example, it would also deal with Puerto Rico, a US territory that is not a US state, correctly.

The validate button is a good example of where AJAX could be used for quick validation – if the system finds a match, it will tell the user that they selected x country, otherwise it could suggest close matches to the user’s string. Say the user typed in ‘Guinea’, it could ask if they meant “Guinea-Bassau” or “Papua New Guinea”, for example. AJAX would ensure that the page would not have to be reloaded each time the user typed something in, which might be several times if the user isn’t a good speller or a bad typist.

This, hopefully would mean that even relatively stupid users could use the form, and hopefully educate them that Scotland is in the UK for future occasions.

incidentally this is exactly the sort of thing I’m studying at the moment – as part of my degree I’m doing the second of two modules in the discipline of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), and ensuring that web pages can be used by total idiots that are also blind forms a major part of my coursework for that module.


  1. To include all the “minor” countries like Scotland would mean they require much more data – perhaps more than they currently have available (though you’d hope not).
    Incidentally, when discussing Scotland – I’ve recently been taught to call it either Scotland (which is best for Scots) or the Brittish Isles, never the United Kingdom – the reason being that UK includes Northern Ireland, and it avoids arguments over whether the UK actually own it.

  2. To be really, really picky, the British Isles refers to a unit of physical geography, not any specific country (political geography). In fact, it encompasses two sovereign nations: the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ (as my passport says!), and Eire, the Republic of Ireland.
    If you wanted to avoid ‘UK’, ‘Great Britain’ would do, but there is a (tiny) chance that anyone who’d find ‘UK’ offensive might find ‘British Isles’ about as bad.
    However, as I said, that really is being picky πŸ˜‰

  3. OK then perhaps it was Great Britain which I was told to use – I wasn’t really listening as I wasn’t particularly interested at the time.
    And sometimes it’s good to be picky πŸ™‚

  4. Sorry; forgot to say: nice idea, Neil.

  5. Pedantry Yay!
    Great Britain is the largest island in the archipelago of the British Isles, once again a unit of physical geography rather than a “sovereign nation”. The historical kingdoms were Scotland & England, Wales is a principality (Prince of Wales) …(hastily looks up in wiki)… Ireland was historically a kingdom, apparently Henry VIII was the first King and Northern Ireland is a Province (Ulster), only it’s not as Ulster apparently covers a couple of counties in the Republic.
    All of this just shows that if those of us who live here & sort of care about it can get it wrong we definitely need idiot proof websites. Oh and it also shows Wikipedia is fascinating, I could spend years reading it. πŸ™‚