Designing for mistakes

“We must design our machines on the assumption that people will make errors.”
Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

People make mistakes. It’s not their fault. Mistakes are merely accidents.

They happen because of random distractions in daily life, small keyboards on touch devices, the dreaded autocorrect and for so many other reasons.

It’s our job to understand these potential mistakes and craft solutions for when they happen.

Bus pass renewals

We’ve recently been working on moving our older person’s bus pass renewals process from paper to a digital transaction. We want to make it easier for council staff to process the renewals and reduce the inconvenience of customers having to go to the post box to send the letter back to us.

Old approach

  1. A citizen receives a letter reminding them to renew their bus pass
  2. The citizen signs the letter and posts it back to us.

New approach

  1. A citizen receives a letter reminding them to renew their bus pass
  2. The citizen has two options:
    • visit the web link included in the letter and complete an online form
    • or, sign the letter and post it back to us.

Our new letter takes inspiration from the Register to Vote letter everyone should have received recently. It highlights the digital service as the primary method of applying.

The new renewal letter with the words 'Renew online: It's easier and faster online. Go to: You'll need your bus pass ID number: 1850322'
Our new renewal letter

We started sending the new letters out in January and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. We were interested to see the digital take-up of a transaction that is purely for older people who generally have lower levels of digital literacy compared to the wider population.

  • 6,500 renewal letters sent out
  • 1,650 renewals completed online
  • 2,500 renewals completed by post.

We’re very happy with a 40% digital take-up of received renewals and expect this to grow as we develop the transaction.

However, with some great customer feedback and analytics we knew we could make some minor adjustments and design solutions for the occasional mistakes that can happen.

Rescuing citizens from mistakes

The mistakes we’ve noticed start before citizens even reach our digital service.

It’s important to remember that our digital transactions don’t sit in isolation. They have to work on different web browsers on different devices.

Mistyping the web link

We all make typos. This isn’t usually a big deal, but it’s vital if people need to type in a web address to get to a specific service.

The correct link is

Thanks to Google Analytics, we were able to quickly find the most common mistakes people were making:

  • /renewbuspass
  • /renew-buss-pass

Here are a selection of less common typos:

  • /renew-bus-pas
  • /renewal-bus-pass
  • /renew-buspass
  • /renew-bus pass
  • /renew – bus – pass
  • /renew.bus.pass
  • /renew-bus-bus
  • /renew-bus-[ass
  • /renew-bius-pass


Create redirects from the most common typos and point them to the correct web link.

We’ve done this for:

We will keep monitoring our analytics and add additional redirects if we notice other common mistakes.

We can’t predict every typo and we have to expect some people will come across 404 Page not found. For these customers, we’ve made sure ‘renew bus pass’ and similar terms will show the correct content on our internal search.

Typing the web link into the Google search box

This behavior is more common than you think. Around 60 citizens typed the web link into Google. Even though newer web browsers combine URLs and search into one text field, many others don’t.

The Google search box with the term ''

For these customers, we didn’t do a great job. They could still reach the transaction, but they had to navigate three webpages first. That’s not good enough.

The problem happened because the web link we use is a short URL (like and it linked directly to our online forms system and not a normal webpage. These short URLs and online forms aren’t indexed by search engines and therefore customers couldn’t directly reach the transaction from the results page.

This is a technical issue, but will be common across local authorities who use external form suppliers.


Change the digital service start page so that it sits on our main council website. This will make it easier for search engines to index the page.

Make sure the terminology used on this page matches the short URL. This will increase the chances of search engines making it the top result for when people type the web link into the search box.

This is an on-going process. However, we hope to have this resolved for when the next batch of renewal letters are sent out.


Our digital services should be easy and fast to use. Yet, mistakes can often lead to frustration.

It’s our intention to craft solutions that are invisible. In these situations, we don’t need our citizens to know they’ve made a mistake. They should just be able to complete the task and get on with their lives.

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