Times Crossword Club – top 10 improvements

This is a list of suggestions about what they need to look at, in descending order of importance. Please add comments to correct the order or suggest things that I’ve forgotten. My intention is to send them a list summarising our views. If you think I’ve got the right list in the right order, please add a comment to say so – I want to say how many people’s views I’m summarising.

  1. Above all … insist on sensible IT practice like proper testing of all changes by people acting like real users, before the changes are made on a live system
  2. Log-in process and RTC user identification – sort out the current problems
  3. Basic service – get puzzles out on time, accurately, and where people expect to find them. This should include removing the current need for manual retyping of material already on computer systems, and automatic inclusion of links to new puzzles on site pages and in archives.
  4. Presentation of daily cryptic – allow use of numbers in clues, fix the accented characters that go haywire in Firefox at least, restore the use of bold and italic which used to be regular features in print and are perfectly feasible online.
  5. Presentation of barred-grid puzzles – these should be printable on one sheet of A4 or US letter paper, and have clear grids and a sensible font size. The currrent method which squeezes them into a column just over 2.5 inches wide is just plain shoddy, especially when compared to the high-quality PDFs used for the Magpie magazine, and for Azed puzzles on the Guardian site.
  6. Improve the puzzle archive – fix the user interface so that puzzles can be retrieved easily, removing the ‘year buttons’ and using sensible controls for specifying puzzle numbers and dates. Use puzzle categories that have all puzzles in a numbered series in the same category so that you don’t have to remember bank holidays and Saturdays. Include all the puzzles on the club service in the same archive instead of building separate ones for Listener and Mephisto, but take 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 presented for not doing it.
  8. Bulletin board – remove moderation except for inappopriate stuff like premature discussion of prize puzzles
  9. Crossword Story and similar pages – ensure these are regularly updated. This includes getting things like championship puzzles and results up promptly.
  10. Vintage puzzles – return to adding one per month, and present them properly, not as barely-readable scanned images

34 comments on “Times Crossword Club – top 10 improvements”

  1. I am reliably informed that they are having huge problems getting everyone back online. May I suggest, Peter, that you let them sort these problems completely before making any suggestions for site enhancement. As one not back online myself, I share others’ frustrations, but let’s get the vehicle repaired before we add the satnav etc. Don Manley
    1. Don,
      I wouldn’t call most of these “enhancements” (I wouldn’t call satnav an enhancement actually, but that’s another matter).
      I think it’s good to formulate some polite requests. They don’t necessarily have to be sent tomorrow but most people pay for this vehicle and have a right to expect that it at least has wheels, a steering wheel and is constantly topped up with petrol.
      My own “satnav” would be the cryptic RTC. I’ve requested it before to be met by stony silence. If enough people ask for it I’m sure it could be arranged.
  2. Please add a request that the operator(s) tell members in advance of expected down time for enhancements or other work. Just about every other site is able to communicate that it will be down (unavailable) between whatever hours “for routine maintenance” or whatever. This allows users to plan around the down period.

    John McDonald
    Louisville KY USA

  3. Just finished posting something caustic on the BB and found your suggested list.Well done Peter! Some fine ideas. But I agree with Don Manley that sorting out registration and basic crossword publishing horlickses must be the top priorities.
    6:47 min today: Wow!
    Regards
    Michael from Spain
  4. 11. Fix the broken links which still refer to earlier versions of the Times site (e.g. those at the footer of the page to NEWS, COMMENT, BUSINESS etc.)
  5. All sensible suggestions, but I agree with previous comments that, above all, and before attempted enhancements, the service must be robust. The product is great, but the (lack of) delivery over the last few weeks has been disgraceful.

  6. I haven’t been on their service long enough to make any useful additions, (in fact since I joined it’s been down a majority of the time) so please simply count me as one of those endorsing your comments.
  7. Count me in, Peter.

    I would like to have the Jumbo puzzles print on one page, or at least an option to do this. Perhaps the scale of the grid could be reduced to accommodate this without reducing the size of the font for the clues by too much.

  8. My suggestion likely falls into #2, but all I want is to be left logged in as before. Even my bank allows me to navigate the site without having to retype my password at every page turn. Until I physically log out or clear the cache/cookies I expect to avoid any log-in process.

    Another suggestion brought up on the Bulletin Board I agree with is to notify members their subscription is due for renewal before automatically debiting the nominated payment method. I personally have no intention of cancelling but a renewal invoice should not be that difficult to generate and email.

  9. Thanks for the replies. I agree that fixes to the current problems are the most important thing.
  10. I’d agree with Don and you, Peter. Forget about everything else until normal service and access is restored. I’ve more or less given up, just trying every few days in case all has come right – it hasn’t of course.
  11. Agree with the suggestions above and the need to wait until the system is back on the road before swamping them with ideas.

    I would strongly recommend that as a way of keeping their current customer base happy, offer an automatic one or two month subscription extension for free.

    1. Yes the least they could do is extend subs for a couple of months. I’ve emailed them asking for this, so will see what they say.

      They don’t seem too bothered about keeping us happy though, do they?

  12. They activated my account manually a couple of days ago, but my main complaint during the downtime over the whole of the holiday, is that had it not been for this blog I’d have been unable to contact anyone or find out what was going on.
    They would not answer the phone, telling us to email, and would not answer emails either. Then when they did eventually answer emails, simply asked if the problem was still there.

    They need to design the system so that the fallback position is access without registration so that nobody suffers from their technical problems.
    And they need to keep us informed what is going on.

    Obviously they shouldn’t make changes without making sure first that they work – but they know this. And similarly somebody should have the job of checking that the online puzzles are up and correct every day – they seem to wait for us to tell them there is a problem.

    The whole thing is run in an amateur way and they need to take seriously the fact that they charge us £20 odd per year for this.

    The whole online crossword club is run in an amateur fashion and if there were an alternative daily cryptic crossword as good, I’d have left them long ago.

  13. Apart from the very obvious need to sort out the registration problems so that the RTC works properly (and, incidentally, so that my online submissions of prize puzzles works – I have no idea whether or not my recent jumbo submissions have been successfully received or not), I find the next most irritating thing is the location of crosswords. The links frequently point to out-of-date puzzles and the “year buttons” are just sooo annoying, especially the 2006-2007 one which gives access to the 2008 New Year jumbos! Although the correct selection of the puzzle type (but why should you have to do this) is possible, it is not possible to use the scroll bar to get to the required puzzle number and you have to use the down key to scroll through a long list of numbers to get to the later puzzles. This wouldn’t matter so much if there were only a few puzzles on the list but the aforementioned 2006-2007 (2008) button goes on for ever. Sarah B.
  14. Count me in Peter. I endorse everything already said. I don’t recall ever seeing before anything quite like the fiasco that the Times site has come to represent. Jimbo
  15. I can’t improve on that Peter. I endorse all your points and the order of priority. Let’s hope you get a useful response.
  16. Fully support the list and would recommend that it is sent asap. The quality of their work suugests that they might need the hints.
    I have also on several occasions (not just recently but during the year) asked for a free month or two as compensation. Maybe add that as a comment?
    Re the order – perhaps swap 1 and 2? – but no big deal.
    Adrian Cobb
    Moscow
  17. Completely agree. Peter.

    …and I can’t emphasise the annoyance I feel at the contempt with which paying subscribers appear to be treated.

    I would be pretty sure that those responsible by now understand the despair we all feel, but have no confidence that (a) things will improve in a marked, immediate and sustained manner, or (b) that any recompense will be offered!

    Neil

  18. I agree with your list, Peter. And with the view that the top 2 are the real priorities, and then 3. The others are worth having, but they can all wait until the basics are sorted.
  19. Just to add my agreement to all of the above. Like babs_gee, I get annoyed every time when they renew my membership for a year then e-mail me afterwards to thank me. I would always renew it, but it would be nice to be asked.

  20. Another annoyance is that if there are special instructions for a puzzle that appear in the print edition, these are often lost in the online version. This is especially the case with Mephisto which has instructions like this occasionally, and sometimes the daily crossword has information (like it was used at the competition or something). These should all appear online too on the day the crossword first appears not either never or several days later.

    Paul

  21. I agree with almost everything written above. The site has been an ongoing disgrace to The Times and to members of the Club who pay for its services. I sent three emails explaining my frustration regarding access over the past couple of weeks and only today have been manually connected.
    Having said this, I feel sure that those journalists responsible for the site must be as thoroughly fed-up with the ongoing technical problems as we users. I think you should send your suggestions in full, Peter, so that they can each be considered and hopefully acted upon, although I suspect that to some extent it will be carrying coals to Newcastle!
    Barry J.
  22. Having read my email from the Times saying I had been manually connected to the Club (but before entering the site) I typed the above comment. Having now accessed the Bulletin Board I urge all readers who can to do likewise. The sheer volume of discontent that has been posted recently speaks for itself. I wonder, Peter, if you should send your comments to the new Editor, James Harding, as well as to the crossword team? He ought to be aware of the exceedingly strong feelings of antipathy towards his paper that currently exists among the cruciverbalists.
    Barry J
    1. Please add my name too. There must be numbers of us who live overseas and are unable to buy The Times when the online version fails. Thank you Peter for registering everyone’s comments and discontent.

      Carole Howell, Fermo, Italy

  23. My current intention is to revise the list over the coming weekend and then pass it on to appropriate people at The Times. I’m not sure that sending it directly to the new editor will really help, but I’ll add background information and links to other places where the level of discontent can be observed, so that it can be passed up the management chain.

    I will make it very clear that fixing the current problems and doing the basics reliably every day must be the top priorities.

    I will probably put up a copy here so that you know what I’ve said on your behalf.

  24. Just adding my name to the list… Timesonline is the most incompetent commercial website I have ever dealt with and I worry that waiting until everything works might involve a long wait. Well done Peter, for taking the initiative
  25. How about, in the interactive version, having a thicker grid line to indicate where a multiple word answer breaks (e.g. after 6th letter in (6,2)). I know many people do this manually when doing printed crosswords. It is especially useful in the long multiple word Jumbo clues.
    1. Ingenious idea, but very much a nice to have I think, and leads on to several others – for online puzzles it would also be lovely to be able to write doubtful answers lightly, or scribble ideas next to clues. And what if, like me, you’re fussy enough to use little dashes instead when it’s (6-4) rather than (6,4)?

      I’m delaying my message to the Times a few days – I’ve got other stuff on.

  26. (1) It would be helpful if the tab key worked.

    (2) I could not get the system to work under Sun’s most recent version of Java. It would be helpful if we knew what versions of Java are supported.

    (3) There are now a plethora of cookies. Are so many cookies really necessary? What do they do?

    Paul W

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