Holding the Online Census to Account

The online version of the New Zealand 2006 Census is littered with unnecessary design and usability issues.

For the first time New Zealand citizens have the option of doing the census online – which is brilliant news. So I thought I’d give it a go. I was truly expecting a slick, web savvy and usable experience.

However, in just 30 minutes (during my once-only run-through), I uncovered a number of technical, design and usability issues. While for many people these will be little frustrations (or perhaps go unnoticed), for others they will turn in to big frustrations. And for a few the online forms won’t even load.

I accessed the census on the following platform (although many of the issues are inherent in the design, not the software I used):

  • Apple iMac
  • Mac OSX 10.3.9
  • Safari 1.3.2 (web browser)
  • A broadband (Xtra Jetstream) connection

Key issues:

Let’s start with the strange and long website address you need to type into your browser to access the census website – http://www.stats.census2006.govt.nz/ – why so long and complicated? Why not just make the address simply http://www.census.govt.nz?


One to watch – if you’re in a text field and hit the tab key – the online census will skip questions with radio buttons and go straight to the next text field – in one case it skipped over 20 questions! (is this a Safari-only bug?)

Tabbing – the main form of navigation between form fields on the web – was inconsistent and in some cases, simply broken. For example, when entering my internet ID the cursor would auto-tab (move automatically to the next field) – a handy feature once you get used to it, but then for the rest of the form the tabbing was manual. And a big blooper – on several steps the tab key would leap-frog over whole sections I’m sure I was meant to fill out (in once case it jumped over 20 questions!). This is possibly a bug in the Safari browser, but is surely one Statistics New Zealand should have picked up during testing.

When entering my internet ID I deliberately made an error to see how the system would react. Well it did react and wasn’t very friendly – first of all I got a warning message in a dialog box (pop-up) – then on returning me to the page it had erased the valid numbers I had entered. I had to start again.


Punishment for not having JavaScript – I waited for the page to load, and waited, and waited… and waited…

This again might be an issue peculiar to the Macintosh platform, but when I tried the form with JavaScript turned off (which is the situation for up to 5% of people out there), the system presented me with this message – after 15 minutes it was still going – so I gave up (I’d hate to think how it would run over a modem!).

In the brave new world of usable web design we avoid using pop-ups – the new wave of web technology means they’re not necessary (error messages can instead be shown ‘inside’ the screen), and besides, many modern browsers block them. The census was mad on pop-ups – pop-ups for error messages, pop-ups for the privacy policy, pop-ups for help, pop-ups for questions – it was pop-ups pop-ups pop-ups all over the place…


Even sites with dynamic forms should do better than this for when rated for W3C and E-Government compliance.


  • Extra questions you won’t find on the paper form have made their way to the online form – such as ‘Where are you filling out this form?’, followed by a question asking your address (huh?).
  • A ridiculously long page for the blue (Individual) form – whatever happened to the widely used step-by-step wizard?
  • And did it validate for web code compliance and accessibility? Absolutely not.

The online census will be one of the most widely-used online government services in the history of New Zealand. The designers and developers of the 2006 Census had a huge opportunity to show New Zealand citizens how their online interaction with Government could be efficient, easy and satisfying – instead it’s dull, awkward and officious… (Just what citizens have come to expect from most Government interactions I suppose…)

PS: I’ve let Statistics New Zealand know about the main technical issues, so hopefully they’ll be fixed soon. If you filled out the census online, please use the ‘comments’ link below to add your feedback.
Update (6 March 2006): There’s a forum about the comments in my blog over at NZMac.com

3 responses to “Holding the Online Census to Account”

  1. brent Avatar

    Nice post, Zef. Always a bummer to see opportunities wasted. Still, I’ll give it a go and see if it’s any better on Firefox.

  2. brent Avatar

    Okay, I’ll fess up – I chickened out and did it on paper. A 180 degree revolution… sigh. It would be interesting to test the paper form’s usability, too – it’s a bit of a Choose Your Own Adventure, and some places encourage you to mark multiple boxes (e.g. ‘sources of income’) more than some other places (e.g. you guessed it: ‘ethnicity’)

  3. jolderballida Avatar

    I wanted to research this subject and write a paper. Your post what a thousand words would not. Nice job.