My wife's passport being due for a renewal, I sat down with my iPad, her current passport, and her recently issued Aadhar card to apply for reissue of passport. Having gone through the Passport application process two years back for my kids, I felt like a veteran on the job.
The Passport Seva Kendra (PSK) website greeted me as any other Indian government website, with the Minister's smiling photo and a statement of vision which in part reads: "to deliver passport services to citizens in a timely, transparent, more accessible, reliable manner and in a comfortable environment". Impressed with the stated objectives, I went about the process of filling up the online form for renewal.
After 16 clicks (okay, taps on the iPad!) I finally reached the online form that allowed me to input the relevant details to apply for the renewal. 16 in fact is a good number for this website that expects users to go through three clicks (and screens) each time they wish to login!
The website is possibly designed by somebody with an academic interest in the Chakravyooha as was created to trap the Pandavas in the Mahabharata epic. For every little bit of information, the user is ensnared deeper and deeper into the website, with nowhere to go but to click home and escape from the cyber dungeons of lost pages.
Like Abhimanyu, it emerges that the design team of PSK is well versed only in one aspect of the Chakravyooha, to lead the user deeper and deeper into the website - with no idea to how the user can get on to related, follow-up, or logical tasks. For example, after three clicks you reach a page that tells you all you have to do (eight steps) to successfully apply for the passport.
The only hitch is that this is as static an online page can be and none of the instructions are hyperlinks. So read all you can about the need to register and login, you cannot do either of it, unless you return to the homepage which is the only place you find the hyperlinks.
And if you go past those 16 clicks and related actions to reach your online form, you may well wish it had not worked. Among the essential information that is required to be provided for your passport an important element is the address. And here, I can only join you in your prayer that you know how to fill it in under 42 characters!
All the time I spent on Twitter came to my rescue and I was able to fit what is normally a 60-plus character address in 41 characters. It is not for nothing that I have a high number of "twooshes" (tweets with exactly 140 characters).
Various gaffs and major usability debacles notwithstanding, I was happy to have survived my cyber battle with PSK and complete the form. In my excitement I almost missed noticing that the application had helpfully agreed on my behalf to submit all my personal information to "service providers".
Thinking this to be my error, I unchecked the form and hit submit; only to see the form refresh as I had missed entering some mandatory info on the screen.
And there it was! The checkbox helpfully selected again expressing my explicit agreement "to share my name, date of birth, gender, address, and contact details with service providers to contact me about their products and services related to banking, insurance, travel, tourism, education, and consumer products".
How very thoughtful of our Ministry of External Affairs Ministry (EAM) to take this brilliant initiative for the benefit of call centres across the country! This must be part of the employment schemes so proudly heralded by our government at various venues.
I could not help thinking of those two confusing fields in the Aadhar application form which also propose to make all the user details available to "service providers". That form was so confusing that I had to explicitly specify, "NO".
Here too, I exercised the special right bestowed on me by PSK to "deselect the checkbox if you do not wish to share your data with the above mentioned service providers." How thoughtful indeed!
And with that, the form submitted successfully! Wow! All I needed to do now was schedule an appointment at the nearest PSK, and they would do all the magic and provide us the new passport. All this was a few days back.
Today, eight days later, I am still looking at the "schedule appointment" screen, pulling at the chunks of hair that have not yet been pulled out, in absolute frustration. As a bonus I today understand why my neighbours who applied for a passport more than a month back, have still to visit the PSK office.
The online form to schedule an appointment, after three more clicks, brings up a cryptic message, "Currently no appointment slots are available for the selected PSK. Please try scheduling an appointment from March 7, 2013 6:00PM onwards". Decoded, this is asking the user to return to the website on the said date and time and attempt to secure an appointment.
From the last eight days (and numerous other users online) it is clear one has a far greater chance of logging in and booking a tatkaal ticket on IRCTC on a first attempt, than scheduling an appointment with PSK. What an ingenious method to keep the pending passport files under check; after all, if you cannot get an appointment, how will you seek a passport?
Where the simplest of calendar algorithms would have automatically provided every user with a list of available appointment slots, the EAM has gone out of its way to complicate the life of the users. It looks like the EAM is taunting its applicants to try getting an appointment, or walk in to the PSK without one and spend a couple of days losing cool at the TCS staff manning the stations.
If our dear Finance Minister is serious about how Indians should learn to respect Time and Money, he could spare a few minutes to promote the overall usability and utility of Indian government websites. Most of these look and behave like they were made by nephews of netas and babus using an early version of MS Frontpage.