Taxing interfaces

The agency in charge of collecting road taxes in Italy is ACI, the Automobile Club d'Italia, or the Italian Car Club 1. Now, this is the XXI century, so ACI have their own rather complete if a bit cluttered web site 2, and not surprisingly on the homepage you may find a quiet link which says something along the lines of Pay your road tax here. Now, I admit, that text-hover hint warning me that clicking would open up a new window should have got me suspicious, but I was so glad it was there I got careless. I really wanted to pay my road tax online. So I clicked, and got this:

aci-ss-startup.png

Now, let me gripe about this a bit. I'll do that quickly, bullet-list style:

  • The window opens exactly like that, cutting out (as we'll see later) most of the relevant information;
  • There is a Deutsch link, which makes a lot of sense, since this web site offers a public service and German is an official language in Alto Adige. Unfortunately, if you click it, you get a very upsetting, very unfriendly, very blank Error 404 page;
  • It's using https, the secure http protocol, but since it stripped away everything from the browser window, users have no visual clues as far as security is concerned;
  • You have a map, and a list. Neither is clickable. Your only active option is much further below and currently hidden from view;
  • You also have an eye-catchy yellow button-like text that screams Calcolo del bollo auto (Calculate your road tax), but that's not clickable too;

It leaves you so clueless for a moment there that when you come back to your senses you start wondering what the hell happened along the way. Because it's obvious that someone cared for this page and tended it. It tries to help. It's not as half as confusing as other tax-paying web sites 3. It shows you where you are and how many steps are required for a successful payment. Unfortunately, you just miss a large portion of the page:

aci-1-small.png

And here, I'm sorry, I have some more gripes. Even quicker:

  • The first paragraph, in bold type, says you can only use the service to renew your bollo auto. That is, presumably, you cannot pay for a newly registered car. Maybe;
  • It says that you may pay but with a 2% surcharge on your total fee 4;
  • There is the usual display of bureaucratic Italian and unnecessary creativity in the wording, so that bollo auto becomes tassa automobilistica, just to confuse anyone;
  • The entryfield labelled Targa (Plate) is precisely 8 characters long. Since modern Italian plates are 7 characters long but usually written with spaces between groups of letters and numbers, like this NN XXX NN, someone paying little attention while writing might end up with a truncated plate id, missing the last character. This pops up a JS alert prompting that spaces are not allowed, which is s a rather contrived and unnatural way to proceed given that spaces could be simply stripped server-side while normalizing the input strings 5;
  • If you mistype your plate id, you are either presented a messy error page which shares a rather nasty resemblance with the Deutsch link discussed above, with no way to get back 6 except for a link saying Nuovo calcolo (Start again), or, even worse, a totally new one. This one 7:

aci-error-500.png

Once you get past that, you move on to a report page:

aci-2-small.png

It seems things are improving. But:

  • Did you notice that you access this page just by entering a valid plate id? That means for example that anybody who can read some plates around could get to know if the owner of the vehicle has been diligent with her road tax payments. I’d say there are some privacy issues at stake here;
  • Then, most important, that red mid-of-page Attenzione (Warning) says, second paragraph, bold type, that although you may have paid your previous bolli diligently, the ACI archives could be slightly outdated, meaning that supplementary, undue, fees might be added to your taxes. This is totally automated, and you cannot do anything about it. They are in, not moving out. That was my case.

Now, everybody is entitled their batch procedures, so, no harm done, says you. Just come back tomorrow8. Unfortunately, I paid my previous bollo auto on September, 23rd 2006. That makes it roughly 140 days, almost five months, without an update to the web site database. That also means that since their online records aren't factual, you could end up paying when you shouldn't in the first place, because your renewal is due later on but the web site just doesn't know that. This hardly makes the service useful, let alone user-friendly.

Anyway, still confident I can put this toil to some use, I struggle on, avoid all notes telling me I can pay offline, by phone, by snail mail, whatever9, and confirm. Enter Step 3, the Pagamento (Payment) page:

aci-3-small.png

And it looks informative: you have pretty credit card pictures, you have a privacy statement with names and numbers, you are requested to enter a office-hours phone number just in case and your e-mail address so they can send you your invoice right away. But. As you can see, my road tax definitely includes fees (€ 129 + 7). So, I'm not interested. I quickly skip to the end, not even noticing that incongruous header for the payment form, Come effettuare il pagamento (How to pay), looking for some way to amend it.
And there it is, a humble link right of the big yellow Effettua il pagamento (Pay this) button. It says Nuovo calcolo (New operation).
Well, silly me, I probably didn't check it out that well and I missed some options for that somewhere. Good. Click. Well, no.
You click that link, you get this:

aci-4-error.png

which looks exactly like the page that followed that misguided Deutsch link. I know that 404 is pretty self-explanatory as far as error pages are concerned, but let's add some details, shall we? This is a blank canvas, it’s still stripped of most of the navigational landmarks and topmost it is showing the alternate text for an image it can't find, the ACI logo. Finally, it says twice I cannot find the file. I have just one word: this is bad. Waaay bad.

Update

I started writing this a week ago. Meanwhile, something happened: ACI apparently managed to update their records, so that at least for now, with a five months delay, you may get appropriate responses. Like this one saying it seems that you paid your taxes allright, I mean:

aci-other.png

One final word of warning: don’t try and click that Nuovo calcolo (New operation) link. You know what’s in store for you, don’t you now?

  • 1. Yes, club. It started out more than 100 years ago as a sports association, apparently
  • 2. Automobile Club d'Italia
  • 3. As usual you do not need to believe me: check out for yourself ICI payments in Ancona and Naples and count how many pages, pop-ups, click-throughs and misleading information you have to overcome. ICI is the Italian conuncil tax and these two cities were chosen randomly.
  • 4. Ok, that's not usability but it really upset me. Aren't online services supposed to cut down costs?
  • 5. Because they are sanitized and normalized, aren’t they?
  • 6. Except for those wise enough to know their browser’s keyboard shortcuts
  • 7. This seems to be triggered by the application not trapping a empty Tipo di veicolo (Vehicle type) entryfield under certain circumstances
  • 8. That is, of course, only if you taxes are not due at midnight of the same day. Which is often the case.
  • 9. Including the one informing me that I can pay online using Bollonet, which supposedly means the very application I'm using, although that's the first occurrence of the name ever
My Dad's portable Underwood
In Italy, like in most other countries I believe, we have what is called the bollo auto, in the English speaking world car tax, or road tax, or even vehicle license fee. That is something you pay on a half-yearly or yearly base because you own or drive around a car. In darker ages you had to suffer time-consuming queues in some murky and crowded place where after showing handful of dubious-looking papers to a bored clerk you ended up paying the wrong amount, but this is the Internet Age: we have the Web, we have automated procedures, we do it online, we do it better. So climb in, ladies and gentlemen, let's go pay some bollo auto.

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