Howard the JokerI normally don’t rant about the positive steps that organisations make towards improving user experience or protecting consumer rights online. The ECC‘s newly launched “Howard the Shopping Assistant” caused me enough disappointment today to warrant an unscheduled post. From the coverage given today in the traditional meeja I had expected a really useful service that might sit in your browser like a toolbar and analyse any shopping site I visit letting me know if it is trustworthy or not. Maybe my expectations of an EU taxpayer-funded venture are too high but Howard (for all the hype that the ECC managed to generate) certainly doesn’t deliver.

Firstly there is no browser toolbar. Visit the ECC Dublin website and the link to Howard opens in a new window that clearly is not sized correctly. My browser blocked the pop-up in the first instance.

I can forgive the not being a toolbar. This was my good idea and I can’t expect everyone to think of the best way to do something. I can’t forgive the laziness in not even getting the size of the pop-up right. Oh, if you click on the “learn more” link in the middle of the pop-up you get ANOTHER pop-up of the same application. To be fair these are small gripes. The real disappointment is that the thing doesn’t even give me the information it promises. I decided to plug in a few website details to see what information is presented back to a potentially concerned consumer.

Buy4now.ie would be considered to be one of the leading Irish online shopping portals. Howard asks me for the web address (buy4now.ie), the country (Ireland) and the company number. Now the company number threw me a bit – I went to the Buy4Now website and couldn’t find their registration number on their homepage. So I ignored that field. I’ve since discovered that the company number is only relevant in 1 of the 27 countries covered by this application – bit of an 80/20 rule gone wrong there I think. So what did I get back from this “really useful” little tool?

It might help to explain my disappointment if I also tell you what I was promised just before I hit the submit button on my search:

  1. PROMISE: “When the website was registered/updated.”
    DELIVERY: A third-party link to the IEDR website which is presumably going to do what this website didn’t do. Type in the domain (again) into the IEDR site and you DON’T find out “When the website was registered/updated”
    VERDICT: Joke
  2. PROMISE: “The results of an Archive.org search.”
    DELIVERY: A link to the search results page on archive.org
    VERDICT: Fine, but not really sure what need this satisfies, except curiosity maybe
  3. PROMISE: “Official Company Register information about the company.”
    DELIVERY: nothing except a message telling me I didn’t type in a number
    VERDICT: Frustrating joke, since only shoppers in 1/27 countries could have typed a valid number
  4. PROMISE: “The results of a Google search.”
    DELIVERY: A link to the results of a Google search
    VERDICT: Joke, what does this do for me? I could have done this myself and probably already did. Aaarrrggghh
  5. PROMISE: “If the website is a member of an e-commerce trustmark scheme.”
    DELIVERY: “Sorry, we can’t find Trustmark certificate for company”
    VERDICT: Joke – I’m worried now about the trustworthiness of one of Ireland’s most trusted online shopping websites
  6. PROMISE: “Trustmarks to look for in the country in question.”
    DELIVERY: Links to EIQA and Segala
    VERDICT: I’m familiar with the first and the second only pitches itself as an accessiblity audit site. Both provide paid-for certification that it seems some of Ireland’s largest websites don’t see as providing them with value-for-money so they haven’t forked out. (Howard should help to increase their revenues if he takes off!) Verdict is therefore: Joke
  7. PROMISE: “The general cancellation period in the country in question.”
    DELIVERY: “7 Days”
    VERDICT: Grand, but the help text doesn’t tell me what this means for my rights and confuses me with “does not apply to all products and services and may be subject to some special conditions…”
  8. PROMISE: “The general limitation period in the country in question.”
    DELIVERY: “none”
    VERDICT: Not very encouraging, even though the help text doesn’t really explain to me what the “limitation period” is – I’m probably getting tired of all this now
  9. PROMISE: “Examples of price comparison sites to look for in the country in question.”
    DELIVERY: nothing, no mention of comparison sites or links to anything that might resemble a link to a comparison site
    VERDICT: Joke
  10. PROMISE: “Contact information to your national European Consumer Centre.”
    DELIVERY: a link to another pop-up window with a list of ALL the centres throughout Europe. I scoll down the long page to find the Irish office, click on the link and guess what… another window magically pops-up!
    VERDICT: Joke

“Dodgy web traders had better watch out,” said Martin Territt, director of the European Commission Representation in Ireland. I think that this should read: “Unsuspecting online shoppers had better watch out; Howard could undermine your faith in even the most trusted Irish online shopping websites – stay clear.”