Tax Form self-assessment designs

Here is a short article about tax forms — that includes discussion of how not only forms can be laid out better, but how legal & financial terminology can be presented for users rather than for experts.

via Self-assessment: not so taxing after all. from the Simplification Centre UK’s Blog:

Self-assessment: not so taxing after all

5 December, 2013 at 4:51 pm, by Jeanne-Louise Moys

Filing tax returns isn’t one of those tasks we look forward to. But comparing my user experience of completing online self-assessment forms for HMRC and SARS (the South African Revenue Services) highlights three of the principles of simplification that HMRC seems to have embraced.

1. Form should be appropriate to the channel

Print and digital are different. Yes, both kinds of form require the same information but different media have different affordances and the user experience should be adapted accordingly. Below is a sample page of the SARS form.

From a design point of view the online version isn’t substantially different in presentation. Essentially, SARS has embedded a pdf with form fields that can be filled in electronically into their online interface, as shown below.

These paper-derived pages don’t fit on your screen unless you zoom out to the extent that one can no longer decipher the text. So you can’t get an overview of the information or look up particular sections with ease. Filling in the form requires you to repeatedly scroll up and down through the different columns (other sections have three on a page) and zoom in and out. This means that you’re often ‘redirected’ to preceding or subsequent pages in the document. It’s impossible to search for particular sections when you need to check or update information.

I felt optimistic this year when I logged in to the SARS efiling interface and it gave me some new questions to customise my form, as shown above. But, in the end, it still gave me an unwieldy set of multicolumn A4-reminiscent pages to fill in onscreen. The HRMC experience of having discrete and navigable sections that a user can click through is much easier to complete. In addition, you can revisit and check any of the sections in the form using the navigation panel on the left of the interface as the next screenshot shows.

2. Remember me

I’ve already noted that both tax forms have some element of customisation. My next bone of contention with SARS is that from year to year I have to correct information I have previously amended. I’ve updated my personal and work contact details and corrected the tick boxes for marital status year after year, but every year the form reverts to the defaults that were seemingly provided for me when efiling was introduced. This year I was pleased to see that my residential address was at least correct, but perhaps that is because it had been updated by the lady on the other end of the SARS helpline during a telephone enquiry I made last year.

3. Explain yourself, simply and succinctly

Tax forms inevitably incorporate some legal and financial terminology. Even when the form only requires a yes/no answer, it can be tricky to figure out what applies to you if you’re not familiar with the jargon. Each question of the HMRC form has a help icon alongside it so it is easy to get clarification about what information you are being asked to provide, as shown in the screenshot below.

SARS efiling’s equivalent? I ended up downloading a long pdf about taxation in South African and searching it for keywords. The document seemed to be written for tax advisors rather than the everyday user. Fortunately, I managed to provide the right information in the end because I could match the tax codes on the form to the tax codes on the certificates I have received. Frustrating.

I’d prefer a life in which I didn’t have to complete any tax returns, but here’s to HMRC’s adoption of plain language and their willingness to identify what information is relevant at which point of the customer journey.

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