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— Apr 22, 2014 —

How to scare thousands of people in the shortest time possible

Or "The worst way to announce school admissions on a website".

Setting the scene

It's the day before you are due to find out if your child is going to get his or her place in the first step in to the education system.

As a parent you've spent endless hours researching local schools, pouring through Ofsted reports, factoring in the distances for the school runs, and countless other things to make the right decision for the little person in your life.

The day finally arrives

It's the day on which school admissions are to be announced online.

Every parent in the county is logging in to their account to check if their child has gotten a place in your most carefully selected school.

There are problems logging in, slow page loading, and all the other things that you can expect (as a knowledgable web person) from a site under huge load compared to the normal amount of expected traffic.

But the problem doesn't lie here, it lies with the sheer lack of thought in the way in which information is presented when the admissions are yet to be announced.

This is the screen that greeted us that fateful morning:

Picture of Northants County Council school admissions page

Now, without having spent any time in user research on this, I imagine that your eyes are immediately drawn to the rather obvious red crosses in the middle of the screen, as mine and my wife's eyes were.

From this small section – albeit the most important part – of the screen, our immediate and horrifying thoughts were that our child had not been given a place from the list of 3 schools to which we had applied.

Don't panic!

Once the panic and and knee-jerk Facebook status updates had subsided (we were definitely not in the minority with this reaction), upon closer inspection, this was the information that should have been brought to our immediate attention:

Picture of Northants County Council school admissions page with important text highlighted

And yet the most striking part of the page are the big, palpitation-inducing, red crosses, immediately invoking the perception that everything is not well.

Any time – by which I mean ANY time – spent on thinking about the content of this page, it's intended audience, and the context in which a user would have viewed this page would have immediately raised concerns about the message it conveys.

And the changed didn't have to be that massive. Something like this would have been far more acceptable to a parent waiting to hear on the future of their child:

Picture of Northants County Council school admissions page and what it should have said

Yes, it may be slightly frustrating for the users, being told that what they're after isn't there yet, but how much better is it than creating a county-wide panic for parents?

All it would have taken to avoid the panic of thousands of anxious parents were just a few moments of consideration and the inclination to make something work well for another human being.

Why more of us don't take these moments is ever increasingly beyond me. If we did, the web would be far nicer for everyone.