Usability atrocities – ParentPay

ParentPay is, according to its Twitter profile “the market leading online payment & dinner money management solution for schools and caterers, used by hundreds of thousands of parents each week.”

It’s quite a good idea – I load up the account by credit card and, as my daughter buys lunch, the account reduces and I get an itemised bill so I can ensure she’s getting her five a day.

The school are supposed to tell her when her account drops below £5, and she’s supposed to inform me. Somewhere in this chain that involves a computer system, harassed dinnerladies and the legendary communication skills of a twelve year old girl, the system breaks down. Therefore, I rarely find out that funds are low until I receive an accusing text at 8.30 am, or on her arrival home when she tasmanian-devils through the family food supplies because she couldn’t afford lunch.

This morning I had just such an SOS text so went to the website. As usual, I’d forgotten my login details (I really want to use my email address instead of choose a username so it’s less to remember). The password reset showed me a splendidly helpful error message:

Server-specific error message in web page

Showing techy error messages saying “server errors in ‘/AUTH’ application” and a handy snippet of XML is unlikely to assist a user. However, showing error messages that can identify a specific server technology is of tremendous use to hackers – they know which server and potentially which version number to target.

After 20 minutes trying different username and password combos, I got into the system and made my payment – puzzlingly, to an organisation called “Alliance in Partnership”, on a website called “ParentPay”. Eh? Alliance in Partnership sounds like some barking rightwing thinktank. But I persevere.

I then verified my transaction via the pseudo-security of Verified by Visa (or its equivalent, Mugged by Mastercard), which is heavily JavaScript-reliant and which reportedly can’t be used on some mobile phones. (This isn’t a criticism of ParentPay, by the way: it’s a cunning ruse by the banks to dodge responsibility.)

I want to like ParentPay. I think it’s a good idea and I hope they succeed. But they need to think more about their customers’ experience. Here’s one tip that would make my life slightly easier.

I know that such a thing is currently beyond human ingenuity and no technology exists that could power such a marvel, but perhaps ParentPay may consider a system that emails me automatically when the account drops below a certain threshold, thereby guaranteeing an uninterrupted supply of bratfuel?

Added 12.30pm

Someone from ParentPay contacted me and said, with admirable politeness, that there actually is such an alert facility but only available at some schools and, once checking that my daughter’s school does offer such a facility, showed me how to set it up.

It’s not easy to find (on the page that tells your balance there is the opportunity to sign up for paid SMS alerts, but no option for emails so I assumed it doesn’t exist), but after verifying my email address I am now signed up.

So I beg ParentPay’s pardon is assuming there isn’t such a system, but suggest that they make it more obvious – I think I’m pretty web savvy and couldn’t find it.

And, in answer to other queries I’ve received, once topped up with money, their system has been flawless over the last 10 months.

28 Responses to “ Usability atrocities – ParentPay ”

Comment by Simon Mackie

D’oh. Surely an email alert when funds are low is one of the first things you’d consider implementing? Also, why not consider having automatic top-ups, like Skype?

Comment by ParentPay

Automated top-ups are being added to ParentPay in the new academic year, but will be optional so parents won’t have to use them if they don’t want to.

Comment by julia

i love the idea of parentpay but too many times i have problems logging in like today my son returns to school tomorrow and i am having problems putting money on his account happens too many times!!!!! Also my son other left school with credit on his account and the money has disappeared.

Comment by natalie

same old same old once again i try to put money on my daughters account for school dinners and once again i cant even get on the site. i think im going back to the old school style of sending her into school with money at least she’ll get fed lol

Comment by Dave

It’s 0820 on 7 September. My son is back to school today and I’ve tried both last night and this morning just to access the ParentPay website.

Well, I can’t! And now I’ve just given up in total frustration.

This is one of those occasions when erudition fails me. It’s simply crap!

Comment by Heid Griffin

Glad I’m not the only parent suffering at the hands of parentpay… Now correct me if I’m wrong but this whole system has been adopted to make life easy, or so it’s says in the letter from my children’s school “ Parentpay offers you the freedom to make payments whenever & wherever you like, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week”
We have used PP for about 6 months or so & ever time I log on I have to reset the pass word even though I reset it to the same one each time IT WILL NOT LET ME LOG ON TILL I RESET what’s the point???
I now have been trying to pay for my son’s drum lessons for 2 days (made it’s telling me something) & I cant even get on the PP website to find a contact number I tried Google & it hit me with this website so at least I know I’m not the only parent pulling my hair out, you would have thought that some spotty IT geek in their IT department would have an idea that there just might be a lot of traffic on the site in the first week back at school… Cant we all suggest watchdog look in to it ????

Comment by Claire

Honestly, what a palava!! I am a busy mum at work, trying to make things easier by topping up my Parentpay account. There is a message on front page ‘We have deactivated website but the application is still running’! What on earth does that mean?! Daughter will go hungry tomorrow if this site can’t sort itself out! And why can’t I find a contact number to have a verbal rant!?

Comment by Paul

Parent Pay is absolute CRAP !
I have been trying to use it for 2 days.
Our Daugher was sent to School today with CASH to pay the Office so that she could have lunch !
No further comment is really necessary.

Comment by Paul

BTW…..

A quick bit of GCSE Maths….

They claim that they are supported by 2000 Schools.

OK…..

Here we go…..

No of Schools
= 2000

Average Number of Pupils per School
= 500

Average Amount Held on Account per Pupil per School
= £10.00

Therefore:

2000 x 500 x £10.00

=

£10,000,000.00

Parent Pay have, in principal, £10 Million in the Bank at any one stage and they can’t have a Website that works!

Blimey…..

I wish I could run such an inefficient company.

I would be a MILLIONAIRE !

Cheers

Paul

Comment by Dawn

I want to like ParentPay too. Unfortunately, I have never, ever, been able to log on with ease or even to get the website to load properly. It’s a disaster and a complete waste of my time, whilst claiming to be a time-saver. I’m thinking of presenting ParentPay with a bill for high-blood pressure prescription charges – and hair transplants, having torn most of mine out.

Comment by Andy

I got here today, because I searched Google for ParentPay, as I have a question about Childcare vouchers and their service.

I have a similar story, but not one so filled with vehement anger, working in IT, I can understand their problems and commiserate with their situation.

I don’t know why the “external website” is not working, but doubt it is due to extreme traffic. The underlying system is still working, albeit with some glitches (on Tuesday I tried to top it up to no avail – assumed this was due to high traffic so left it ’til yesterday, when I was able to top up with no problem).

One thing I noted, the small amount of credit on my son’s account had not been decreased due to his Lunch, so I think it likely they realise there are issues and are allowing lunches to proceed without funds until issues are sorted out (this may NOT be the case so don’t rely on it).

As to the e-mail alert, first thing I signed up for, thought it was easy to find! Annoying though that I got dozens of alerts over the holidays!!!

Comment by Jenna

Hi there, I have been reading this with interest! I am a parent at a Hampshire School and they use the Tucasi Internet Payments system (an alternative to ParentPay) and whilst I have had a couple of little problems and the system goes down for an hour or so for maintenance every now and then, it is on the whole a very reliable system and REALLY easy to use I just put £20 on my daughter’s dinner account and £50 for a trip with no trouble at all!

Comment by Dave

Whilst I appreciate Andy’s point about “extreme traffic”, I’m afraid that I find it difficult to adopt his rather generous view of ParentPay’s situation.

The fact is that, at my son’s school in Carlisle, ParentPay is not new. I used it for much of the last academic year. Sometimes it was completely trouble-free, but more often it was not. Neither, in my admittedly inexpert opinion, is it a particularly user-friendly user interface.

When I last ranted in these columns (7 above), I couldn’t get into the system at all. Well, now I have – and the £25 I credited 24 hours ago and which is receipted as an authorised payment doesn’t appear on the card balance. In fact, two different (and much lower) balances appear in different parts of the site.

It appears that contact with ParentPay is via the school, which in one respect at least focuses the matter more locally. But then again, the last time I raised an issue it was never answered or even acknowledged.

My requirement is simple – a payment mechanism that works. Cash does that, albeit with drawbacks. So far, ParentPay does not!

Comment by shepherdess

I dont see how other people cant see this new set of systems are solely there to control the future freedoms of our children.
While it seems like a good idea to pay via parentpay, this does mean the money is in their account earning interest for companies.
It also means they can keep track of what your children are choosing to eat, what activities they are involved in, what their thumb print is etc..
And where e currently they do not share this information, it is in every contract that they may do so in the future – or will be with one simple change of T&C which you will have to agree with.
Why is all this happening – well thats simple, without cash, the government and corporations can know exactly what you are earning, what money is coming in and out of your home, what that is being spent on, where you go, when you go there etc
Now they introduce ID for all children under 16 to get reduced travel costs (ie kids fares). Knowing exactly what your kids are doing, where they are going, how long they spend there…and getting them used to having a delicately forced ID card!
Wake up people!

Comment by Kelly Eustace

Just looking for the parentpay website when I stumbled on this website. Having read this and to balance these comments out, I feel compelled to say I have never had any problems with the site. When my Son left School I left a message to say transfer to my daughters account and it was done. A large part of the administration is done by the school and not a faceless company. Being a busy working Mum, this is a godsend to me and is set up as a favourite for me to log in to. All trips are done on line and this means no late payments when the children hand me a letter too late (as always). I also have no problem remembering my password and username. I chose something I could easily remember.

Comment by Sarah Kissack

What I would like from ParentPay is for the website to tell me how much is left on my daughter’s card when I log on – this must be on the system, so why can’t I access this? It would be easier for me, daughter and school.

Text alerts aren’t available at my daughter’s school, so assume I can’t sign up for email alerts either, but grateful if anyone can let me know if this is possible. I too have tried to contact ParentPay – no reply to the email I sent their commercial contact address, and as others have said there’s no phone number.

Comment by delboy

Ha ha, I love all the comments like ” child will go hungry” etc

Heard of making sandwiches? 5 mins at most……

Comment by James James

The interface is atrocious, it was a challenge just to work out the balance, only through a lot of trial and error did I manage this, and still I found three different amounts scattered in various places across the web site. I hate it. The idea is great, it needs to be a lot less busy, a lot more intuitive, and a heck of a lot more user friendly. It is misleading in that you have to click ‘Add to Basket’ before you have actually seleceted anything to buy (i.e. school dinners).

Comment by Jim

I agree with all the frustrated parents here. Parentpay is among the most poorly designed websites I have ever seen. Once my money runs out I will go back to giving cash to the school office.

Comment by Peter Mac

Why our Schools deal with an organisation which refuses to speak to customers is beyond belief.

They say we cannot speak to you because of identity issues…..my bank are quite happy to transfer money around the world as long as i prove my ID over the phone.

Every time we have a query we have to submit 100+ digits…as if we have nothing better to do with our time!

FFS put a phone line in and speak to your customers and fellow humans,i promise you it,s not difficult.

Comment by Cap'n Bill

Hi – a response, especially to shepherdess, no 16 above:

You are right, this a sinister development in my mind. If you look around on the internet you find that Tucasi is a “partner” with a company called Vericool, which besides offering “cashless catering” (initially sounds like a good idea) and “school reception software” (also sounds harmless enough) also offers “biometric multi lesson registration”. This is where I start to shout at the computer. Another Vericool “partner” is called, er, BioStore.

This is what BioStore have to say about themselves:

“Biostore delivers dedicated biometric software and reliable hardware to ‘Biostore Partners’. THE BIOSTORE PRODUCT IS A CENTRAL DATABASE which attaches a Biometric record, of fingerprint, Iris, palm print or IN FUTURE ANY OTHER BIOMETRIC IDENTIFIER to a student record. Biostore TALKS TO OTHER SOFTWARE, and when asked, confirms the identity of a student seeking to use a service within the school.”

(All caps are mine, for emphasis).

There is a hidden, or unnoticed, world of surveillance going on out there and it is being honed on our children. I don’t like being told I’m paranoid because I don’t want to respond negatively to people who do not realise the implications of this (hey, I’m a nice guy). This has all been discussed on many other forums and in other media and I am depressed that people do not understand the power of the databases being constructed without our knowledge or consent. A great example is the ID card, a stalking horse for powerful databases.

To those who say we have nothing to fear if we have done nothing wrong, my response is that neither did the victims of dictatorships such as Stalin, Mao, Hitler or Pinochet. There are endless examples throughout history of people who should have had nothing to fear.

Enough ranting, please consider this and think about what is happening to our children and their futures.

Comment by Rick Hough

This is one of the worst interfaces I’ve seen since I started testing Web sites in 1994, and I’ve seen some shockers. The first thing you want to see on login is a balance, not Items due for payment that need to be put in a shopping basket (WTF?).

And why do I need a list of meals my child DID NOT eat?

So is ParentPay bespoke code or is it just a module bolted onto an Opensource shopping cart? Where are the “funds” held? Where is the banking strength back end and data warehouse? Who designed the UI and which crayons were they holding at the time?

I could have a dig around of course but no way do I want to be accused of hacking and get the blame when this POS goes belly up and “deletes” all the dinner money.

My son also reports that the dinner queue is slower than ever and he can’t pay cash. Great, what a leap forward eh?

In my day the only thing you had to worry about was the bully nicking your dinner money, now it’s the IT system going fritz.

Comment by Walt Buchan

Hi, Good to see I’m not alone, although I’m forced to use the Tucasi product by our school.

As a usability / user experience researcher/designer (I too test websites) I can testify that the Tucasi user interface is an appalling mockery of all commonly understood design principles. Shockingly bad. I’d lose my job id designed anything like that.

Thanks,
Walt

Comment by Steve Sears

Parentpay is nothing more than Debtors account that makes life easier for the schools,but not for you. These type of accounts are wide open to mistakes being made. Items have appeared on our account that are not even relevant to our child. Parentpay was set up to make money, not to help the parents. Its great how they expect you to pay for food & drink in advance. Note there is no where on the website to close the account down. I am now in the process of trying to close the account. I shall let you know how I get on.

Comment by Stella

We have been using ParentPay for two years now and although we have experienced some problems with the internet going down from time to time, NRS not synchronising with ParentPay at times, have found the service fairly simple to use. I think the reason for the problems is that once schools started to use it the demands grew beyond the capability of the service. There definitely needs to be more flexibility and a quicker response to suggestions for improvement. It has been improved during the two years but still has more refinements to make.
I have found their customers services helpful. Overall it is a good system