26th April 2016 London, UK
Emergency travel documents online: getting people home the complicated way
Last year I wrote a number of ‘Photo casebooks’ talking about what an emergency travel document is, and our plans to digitise the application process for an emergency travel document.
The project is still invitation only, but has now been rolled out worldwide; and at least until our legalisation online project goes live, it is unambiguously the best website the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has ever released1. In a series of slightly longer blogs, I’d like to tell you a little more about several aspects of the project: the challenges we have faced, the technical details, our successes, and in at least one case our failures too.
To start with I’d like to write a little about the levels of complexity we have had to deal with. We decided to do the project largely on the belief that we could offer our customers a much better experience, and that the current process was an inefficient use of our staff’s time. Our service owner Rebecca did warn us that issuing a document which allows someone entry into the UK was a complex old business – but armed with our trusty optimism, and the knowledge that the Passport Office were working on digitising the application process for a full passport, we sailed on.
A surprising amount of use cases
One of the first problems we had was that although an emergency travel document has many of its features set very strictly by international agreement, there are at least 6 valid reasons why you might need a document – these include losing your passport or having it stolen but there are more. These different cases need slightly different information to be collected and checked.
Combining these cases with what we are able to offer locally means that we had to cope with a phenomenal number of cases:
- There are 196 consulates, embassies, and high commissions around the world who can issue an emergency travel document
- Most consulates will accept online payments for your emergency travel document but others can’t for one reason or another
- Most consulates offer online appointment booking but a few don’t
- Some consulates were on a new case management system, while others were on the old. Consulates moved from the old to the new during the course of the project.
To begin with then, the website had to deal with 9 408 (6 x 196 x 2 x 2 x 2) different but perfectly valid customer journeys.
Which countries would you like to go through?
Additionally, an emergency travel document is not like a full passport: it is only valid for a single journey which is printed in the document itself, reading for example ‘Issued for a single journey to United Kingdom arriving on 17-04-20162. Many of our users will simply get a direct flight home, but around half go via another country which must itself be written on the document. In fact, you can transit up to 5 countries using your Emergency travel document as long as they are all specified in it.
In order to collect this information, we needed to make a page which was usable both for people simply flying from Spain to the UK, and those who were on a cruise ship travelling home via 5 separate countries.
For a good deal of the application process we were able to look at the good work done by the Passport Office on their transaction to cancel a lost and stolen passport: we knew they had heavily user-tested their work so we had an excellent chance of it being usable for our users too. The Journey Details page was the most complex in our application however, and it had no precedents at all across government – we had to work it out ourselves.
What you see above is about draft 70: we went through several rounds of user testing just on this screen. As we tweaked and tweaked it, the feedback inched from people failing to complete the page entirely, to ‘this page is very confusing!’, to the above version where eventually we had a run of people who simply wrote ‘no problems’.
The mathematics spiral out of control a little here. Not including the UK, there are 228 different countries and territories in the world, and you could theoretically lose your passport in any of them. Therefore, this page needed to cope not only with people planning to travel from 1 of 228 places to the UK; it also needed to deal with people leaving 1 of those 228 places, transiting 1 of the 227 remaining, making a further transit of 1 of the 226 remaining – I could go on. All in all, this page copes with over 10 trillion different possible journeys. And that’s before we even get to the next question:
Yes – many people need to travel and then return to where they are on the same emergency document. They are allowed 5 transit countries on the return journey too.
I hope that gives some flavour of the challenges we faced but also how interesting the project was; I’ll write again shortly on how we dealt with the different local requirements countries have and how we try and keep up to date with countries changing their laws.