Thursday, April 05, 2012

Governments need to ensure their websites work for modern users

I went to the Australian Business Register site ( this afternoon to set up an ABN (Australian Business Number) for a company.

This is a very common step, taken by hundreds, if not thousands, of Australians every week.

However I immediately hit a speed bump.

The site's online ABN registration process threw up an error message (image below) stating:

Browser not supported
The Australian Business Register currently supports the following browsers:
  • Internet Explorer 5.0 and above
  • Netscape 6.0 and above
You should update your browser version before you continue using the Australian Business Register. If you believe your current browser is suitable to use, please continue.

Refer to Technical Information for details on how to configure for your browser for the Australian Business Register.
This was confusing and offputting as I was using Firefox 11.0 - one of the most modern web browsers available.

Fortunately I had Internet Explorer 9 on my system and gave this a try - no error screen appeared.

Now if you read far enough into the error message it does state that 'If you believe your current browser is suitable to use, please continue.' - however I was in a hurry at the time and, like many users, didn't read the error message all the way through.
The error message visible at the Australian Business Register site, together with the 'About' information window for the web browser in use
The error message visible at the Australian Business Register site,
together with the 'About' information window for the web browser in use

Regardless of whether this translates into a user error, I believe that there is an obligation on government agencies to ensure their websites are accessible and usable in modern web browsers without unnecessary and confusing error screens.

Essentially, when I have Firefox 11.0, I don't expect to receive an error stating I need 'Internet Explorer 5.0 and above' or 'Netscape 6.0 and above' - as my web browser is "above" both and, in fact neither of those web browsers have been current for more than 10 years!

For such an important and common business process as registering an ABN the responsible agency needs to take a little more care in its online delivery of services.

Otherwise their online services will damage trust and respect in the government's ability to deliver and cause customers to migrate to what are slower and (for agencies) higher cost channels.

I'll bring this issue to the attention of the responsible agency, the Australian Tax Office, and check back in six months to see if anything has changed.

For all other government agencies out there, please check that your public online systems aren't needlessly damaging your credibility in this way. Please make sure your websites work for modern users!


  1. If you think that's bad (you're right, it is!) wait until 28 days elapse and you have to call them to find out why they haven't processed your ABN application. Standard response: they'll log an 'escalation'. The timeframe for that? Another "28 days".

    They'll do it faster if you lodge a complaint. Daft.

    I wonder if that site actually works in IE5…

  2. Fully agree. It's a very popular website and they should stay a bit more up to date with the world.
    Also there are a lot of Mac users in Australia, how can they apply online for an ABN?

  3. How frustrating. However, wont the accessibility review and compliance requirements for W3C (that are mandatory for government) resolve this though? I'm sure the ATO isn't on it's own here and i'm sure it's currently under review so that the stipulated requirements for accessibility are met. As you can appreciate being a former online communication manager yourself this can be a long, costly and arduous process!

    A good online communication manager should be reviewing the analytics for the sites they maintain in any case to determine what operating systems their users are using - i'm sure the ATO does this which would be the catalyst for any change. Given that this is a problem for you and it can be assumed that you're probably alot more online savvy than the 2 million plus small business owners or sole traders seeking an ABN(who are rarely online) I think it may be safe to assume they do not regularly download upgrades for their web browers - well as much as you or I that is!

    P.s I do not work for the ATO :-)

  4. Hi Anonymous,

    It is a dangerous assumption that small business owners would be using old web browsers - particularly when it is easy to check through the visits to your page which browsers they are using :)

    However my issue isn't the age of the web browser, it's the detection code in the site - which is falsely detecting a modern web browser as an old browser and thereby preventing use of the ABN service by people who do update their web browsers - which represents over 80% of the web using public in Australia.


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