Suggestions list sent to Times Crossword Club

Here’s the revised list of suggestions, which I’ve just sent to various people at the Times, including Sue Kentish, Crossword Club Editor, and Richard Browne, the Crossword Editor.


The purpose of this message is to summarise suggestions for improvements in the Times Crossword Club service. It’s a combination of my own ideas and those of readers of my “Times for the Times” blog at . A blog posting with an earlier version of this list and the request for comments is at:

I’m sending this message to people I know have responsibility for or an association with the Crossword Club Service, and a couple of people whose addresses I’ve seen on other e-mail messages about the club. I’ve included background information so that this message can be passed to higher levels of management if you feel this is appropriate. This message (without e-mail addresses of recipients) will be added to the blog. If someone at the Times requests it, I’m happy to put a reply to this message on the blog too.

The message that needs to be heard loud and clear at The Times is that although the crosswords themselves are at least as good as those of any English language paper on the planet, the service provided by the crossword club is regarded as unsatisfactory by many members, and this is doing nothing for the paper’s reputation among crossword enthusiasts.


Who’s Peter Biddlecombe? A solver of the Times and various other cryptic crosswords since about 1977. Winner of the Times Crossword Championship in 2000 and 2007, and Internet windbag on cryptic crosswords since about 1998.

What’s the blog? A daily report about the Times crossword, started in late 2005 by Peter Biddlecombe. Authorship switched from one person to a team in November 2006. The blog is read by a number of Times setters as well as solvers. More information at:

Times Crossword Club Problems: Over the last couple of years, there have been rumblings of dissatisfaction from club members about crosswords not appearing on time, the slowness of the bulletin board as a means of communication, and various other irritations. Some of the views expressed can be seen in the following places:

The rec.puzzles.crosswords newsgroup – here’s a Google search with some
related messages:

Derek Harrison’s “Crossword Centre” message board –
Three recent threads of messages on this board:

The Club’s own bulletin board:
(scroll down to the beige area showing comments, and choose the “show all xxx messages” option).

Dissatisfaction with club services increased hugely when changes to the registration and log-in aspects of the Times Online service were made in mid-December 2007. The effects of the changes included long service suspensions that happened without warning, and inability of members to get the service that they pay for. It appears that even now (10 Jan 2008), there are members of the club who cannot sign in and get access to the puzzles.

Because people who like crosswords often have jobs in IT, there are many club members who are doubly dissatisfied because many of the problems seem to be the result of mistakes that simply should not be made by people running computer systems in the 21st century. These include aspects of system and user interface design, programming, testing procedures, “IT common sense” (the classic case here being “don’t release anything in December unless you really have to”), and simple
communication – if you need to suspend a service, have the common decency to tell the users that this is going to happen, in advance! Things may be more complicated than they look from the outside, but if that’s so, some decision in favour of complexity must have been made by someone.


First, two money-related suggestions that don’t relate to the club site itself:

A. It has been suggested by several club members that there should be some form of compensation for the poor service over the last month or so, such as the free extension of current memberships by a month or two. I don’t know how easy this is to do, but if it could be done, it would get some goodwill back from disgruntled club members.

B. Another money-related suggestion: inform users about upcoming Worldpay renewals a month or so before they take place, instead of thanking them just after charging for another year. This gives them time to check their card details, and to cancel their subscription if they wish to do so.

Now, the ones about the club site. These are listed with the most important ones first. I cannot emphasise too much that the reliability, accessibility, and accuracy of the basic service are paramount – the first three points relate to these. Much as some of us would like to see other things improved, these are less important.

1. Above all … sensible IT practice MUST be used. This includes proper testing of all changes by people acting like real users, before the changes are made on a live system. This testing should include variations in user-dependent areas like browsers and browser settings – it’s clear that there are times when some users have problems and others don’t. (Example: some versions of Java are better than others for the club site – they should all work, but at the very least, the club site should say which one you need.) It also includes getting advice from
people who understand what your customers want and how it should be done, and providing timely and accurate information about what’s happening – especially when it’s a suspension of service. This should include some response to suggestions made by club members – several of the suggestions below have been made before but no response has been made to them.

2. Log-in process and RTC user identification – sort out the current problems for all users. This includes a robust and permanent ‘player name’ solution for Race the Clock, and removing the need for frequent log-ins just to access other pages on a site you’ve already logged into.
To check that things really are working, I would suggest e-mailing all club members to check whether they can log in and get the stuff they want.

3. Basic service – get puzzles out on time, accurately, and where people expect to find them. One way to improve this area is to remove the current apparent need for manual retyping of material already on computer systems. The addition of new links to site pages should really be done by computer programs rather than by manual changes. Test access to new pages proactively, rather than waiting to react to reports of problems from members.

4. Presentation of daily cryptic – allow use of numbers in clues (as in the print version), fix the accented characters that go haywire when printing (from Firefox at least), and restore the use of bold and italic in clues, which used to be regular features in print and are perfectly feasible online. If changes are needed to support on-line versions, until the software supporting the online puzzle works properly, these changes should be made AFTER creating the printable version of a puzzle with precisely the same content as the version in the paper.

5. Presentation of other puzzles – especially barred-grid ones (Listener and Mephisto) – these should be printable on one sheet of A4 or US letter paper, and have clear grids and a sensible font size. For Listener and Mephisto, the “print option” shown at the bottom of the page is an improvement on printing from the page initially displayed, but this option is too well-hidden. People paying for a service should be taken straight to the printable version, not have to go there by way of a page with advertising. Your print versions should be as good as
the high-quality PDFs used for the Magpie magazine (sample issue at ), and for Azed puzzles on the Guardian site. For Times Jumbo puzzles, one person suggested an option to print the whole of the puzzle on one sheet of A4. This should be feasible with a smaller grid and font, and would be much better for solvers than working with two sheets.

6. Improve the puzzle archive – fix the user interface so that puzzles can be retrieved easily, removing the ‘year buttons’ and using appropriate controls for specifying puzzle numbers and dates (simply typing “23,647” is MUCH quicker than scrolling in a drop-down with hundreds of entries). Organise puzzle categories so that all puzzles in a numbered series are in the same category – then users don’t have to remember whether puzzles appeared on bank holidays or Saturdays to find
them. Include all the puzzles on the club service in the same archive instead of building separate ones for Listener and Mephisto, but take appropriate account of differences like the fact that Listener puzzles have titles.

7. Add Cryptic Race the Clock – requested many times, with no good reason ever given for not doing it. The ad for the club printed next to each Saturday’s puzzle in the paper mentions “daily Race the Clock puzzles”. Readers of this ad could quite reasonably expect these puzzles to include the cryptic as well as the Times 2 puzzle. (No such ad appears with the Times 2 puzzle, curiously.)

8. Bulletin board – remove moderation except for inappropriate stuff like premature discussion of prize puzzles. The software used throughout Times Online for reader comments has one idiotic omission – the date when a comment was made should appear with the comment automatically. Also, users who are already logged into Times Online should not need to enter their name and location as they want it shown on comments – this information should be stored as part of their user details.

9. Crossword Story and similar pages – ensure these are regularly updated. This includes getting things like championship puzzles and results up promptly. The full results of last the Times Crossword Championship are still unavailable, more than three months after it took place.

10. Vintage puzzles – return to adding one per month, and present them properly, not as barely-readable scanned images.

Peter Biddlecombe

18 comments on “Suggestions list sent to Times Crossword Club”

  1. Peter. This is all good stuff from your point of view and from the point of view of many of the solvers. However, it does seem to be to be couched in a rather less diplomatic tone than it might have been. Telling folk (even tradesmen!) that they are are load of plonkers and that you could do the job better yourself isn’t always the way to win friends and influence people. It would have been nice to have prefaced any criticisms with the observation that the online service has been a very good thing, and then proceeded rather more tactfully!
  2. I disagree that Peter’s submission is in any way tactless or shrill. I think it is a fair, measured and constructive piece, which makes clear at the outset the unrivalled quality of the underlying product (the crosswords themselves). I sincerely hope it is received as such.
  3. I think that Peter’s note is fine: just how much effect it will have remains to be seen.
    I am still without access to the Mephisto and the “archives” (for some unknown reason and despite having recently been debited for another year)since 23/12.
    So, for me, the note could have been a lot lot tougher!
    1. I think it’s fine. Do I gather that most people now have access to the daily puzzles through “the front door”? I still don’t after nearly a month. I refuse to incur telephone charges by ringing their customer help line but I keep trying to reregister and have sent numerous e-mails complaining with no response except an automated message saying they have been passed on to the approriate department.
  4. Of course we all have just cause to feel annoyed, angry, frustrated etc — no one disputes that — but I still think it might have been better to get all the old problems sorted out before presenting a new wish list. Put yourself in the position of Sue Kentish trying desperately to get things sorted! Psychology!
    1. Compared to some of the raw frustration expressed on the bulletin board, the tone is extremely restrained… I think PB is a good person to have as a spokesman – his attitude is above all reasonable, and I hope that will be respected.

      As for fixing the immediate problems before worrying about the rest, they’ve had weeks now to put their finger in the dike and haven’t been able to do it. They need to get in a professional and sort things out from top to bottom, once and for all.

  5. I’d just like to say Thanks, Peter for going to so much trouble on our behalf.

    I think the tone is fine, given the extent of problems experienced lately.

  6. I think it’s fine also. If the Crossword Club people have any sense then they’ll have a quick read, then place it very near the top of the in-tray for attention as soon as the current problems are sorted out.
    Thanks Peter!
  7. Well done and many thanks, Peter. The fact that you have consulted and taken the trouble is for me more important than the tone. I know you will let us know the outcome. Jimbo.
  8. If there had been adequate dialogue between club and ‘control’ at an earlier stage there would have little call for angry emails. This hasn’t stopped being true.
    In addition to the RTC extended to the cryptic xword I would hope to see complete lists of data rather than just top tens; perhaps i am not explaining myself.
    Interesting to see Sandy Balfour’s comments in the Guardian club monthly bulletin though non-committal.
  9. Peter —

    Thank you very much for acting as spokesman. I think your submission to the Crossword Club was well written and the tone was fine.

    Yesterday (January 10) I had an e-mail from the Crossword Club. In utter frustration at the end of December and knowing that my renewal date was January 23, I had sent an e-mail requesting they cancel the service and that they acknowledge receipt of my request. Their e-mail indicated that my subscription had been extended to March 2008 and that I would receive notification from Worldpay before renewal took place. They said that they hoped their improvement in the interim would sway me to change my mind and re-subscribe.

    John McDonald
    Louisville, KY USA

  10. Well-written, Peter. I think the tone is fine, it’s interesting to see the comments on it initially – last year I took an educational psychology course specific to online teaching, and one of the things that is stressed the most is that you will automatically come over as harsh or cold no matter how you phrase an email where the point is to give constructive criticism.

    Apart from seeming to always go to the login screen (that little box that says “remember me”, she does nothing!), access is OK today, and I’ve gotten a few catch-up puzzles.

  11. If I get any word from the Times that adds to what they say on the club site, I’ll pass it on, but my guess is that whatever they want to say in public they’ll say there.

    In response to jackkt, all I can say is that for most of the last week or two (possibly more but can’t remember for sure) I’ve been able to get crosswords through the front door. I can’t tell whether I’m in the lucky 1%, 99%, or somewhere in between.

  12. Is it worth sending your email to the IT director(s) of the company which is maintaining the site?
    1. I’m happy to communicate with anyone if it will help, but it’s the Times we’re paying for the service, so it’s their responsibility to provide it. This includes choosing and communicating with any third-party suppliers. Except for the fact that the Race the Clock applet comes from (this is from memory) a Dutch firm called who also supply it to the New York Times and possibly some other papers, I don’t know who’s responsible for the site, nor whether the problems are their fault. I have tried to make it clear in the email that I’m happy for it to be passed on as appropriate – though as it’s posted on a blog, that much should be obvious.

      If you happen to know who these IT directors are, you are free to send them a copy or just give them a link to this page if you think that the Times are not giving them useful customer feedback.

  13. A cc’d e-mail from a club member to the Times reminds me about a problem that doesn’t concern me because I don’t use this part of the site. Apparently, online submission of puzles like the non-cryptic jumbo is sometimes impossible because the ‘submit’ button is missing (and the message reporting a completed grid sometimes fails to appear too). I’ve passed this on.

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