Oh for form’s sake…

By Brand Heeler

A seasonal rant about privacy and appropriate data handling

A brand is so much more than a name or a logo. As we’ve mentioned before, a brand is an encapsulation of the whole consumer experience, a promise of what your customers may expect from their next transaction with you, based on their experience from previous dealings. One thing which is sure to mar that experience is unnecessary admin. Bureaucracy has always niggled us and we don’t suppose we’re alone in that. We’re fine with proper paperwork (we love a tidy filing system as much as the next data subject) but we’ve definitely got a problem with the kind of purposeless purgatory that grows round systems like toadstools round, err…, dead wood.

We rarely get the impression that any thought has been given to what the particular admin is designed to achieve. Or how. Or why. (And while we’re at it, why do so many paper forms give you t h i s m u c h s p a c e f o r y o u r n a m e but then make you cram your email address intosomethinglikethis? We reckon no official paperwork should be issued until it has been thoroughly tested on its own authors!)

We’ll spare their blushes by not naming them, but a chain of family-friendly restaurants regularly emails us with offers and discounts. All well and lovely of them but, having emailed us, by name, why do they ask us to reply confirming our name and email address? Is their memory so short? Is their database so unreliable? And why (oh why) do they then insist on addressing us as ‘Nichola’?

More perplexing still is their insistence on a mandatory field for ‘Title’ – is it so crucial to our enjoyment of their brand offering that they capture our gender and marital status? We sincerely hope they don’t indulge in anything as gauche as tailoring their offers according to this information… And what of data protection and privacy legislation, under which such information is very likely to be sensitive personal dataand so subject to additional restrictions and controls?

There’s also a very curious selection of titles on offer – Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Dr, Rev, Prof… we have absolutely no idea whether this is demographically significant or completely arbitrary, but it makes us feel inadequate. It does, however, have the advantage of not appearing as class-conscious as a certain well-known airline, who clearly want to attract a better class of passenger:

Nice try, but… Reverend and Rabbi but no Sheikh? Captain but no other ranks? As for Dukes and Duchesses – they clearly need to book their flights elsewhere!

At this point we need to give serious plaudits to our favourite London foodie emporium (we’re sure you know which one) – it may still have half a foot in the 19th century but, in terms of gender equality, its website is cutting edge with options for Mr & Mrs, Mr & Mr, and Mrs & Mrs.

Mind you, even they haven’t got it entirely right. Theirs is another very selective selection of titles, which is never going to please everyone (not least those who blog about such things!) It’s also all to no very obvious purpose, since their email confirming our order was bluntly addressed to ‘Dear Customer’. These examples aren’t by any means unusual. For some reason, nearly every ecommerce site you encounter will insist on foisting a title upon you, and we’re not sure it’s either commercially or legally justifiable. Surely better to let you enter something in freetext if you feel the urge, or leave you in peace if you’ve got better things to do than pigeonhole yourself?

Ecommerce is, of course, about more than just retailing (if that’s what you want, get thee to the High Street!) It’s first and foremost a data-collection process and can, in theory, afford businesses blinding insights into our purchasing proclivities. But only if done properly. We’re quibbling about trivialities in this article, but with a serious point: how many ecommerce databases are actually fit for purpose and how many are used properly and efficiently? How well structured are they, and how secure?

The age of Big Data is here so expect this kind of thing to become all-pervasive as businesses vie for our attention and patronage. What they know about us, and what they do with that knowledge, will be increasingly important. In which case, we’re going to need to know we can trust them with our personal data and a great place for them to start is to show a bit of thought and care when they collect it. Current legislation states that data must be accurate, up to date, relevant and proportionate. We’re not sure that any of the above examples fully comply with this relatively modest requirement. Our New Year’s resolution is to do business only with ecommerce outfits that can demonstrate a proper understanding of the law and their obligations and responsibilities under it. And that includes not calling us Nichola.

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.

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