An incredibly TAX ing User Experience

“Tax doesn’t have to be taxing”

completing tax return hmrcI can confirm this is the biggest whopper i’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s true if you never touch self assessment yourself and leave everything in the hands of bookkeepers and accountants. But, for the average Joe Bloggs, completing a self assessment for the first time (like I’ve just done) is a very unpleasant, frustrating and stressful user experience.

Completing a self assessment for the first time will:

  • Take much longer than you expect (take a guess then multiply it by at least 5)
  • Confuse the life out of you. The guidelines are so generalised that finding specific answers for your particular situation is nearly impossible.
  • Make you hate the HMRC helpline. They take a lifetime to answer the phone, and you can guarantee that as soon as you hang up the phone you think of one more vital question you should have asked so you have to start the whole process once again.
  • Make you hate all websites associated with tax, in particular the HMRC one. There’s a wealth of information out there but trying to find answers to seemingly simple questions like how to calculate how much NI you owe is very difficult as once again it depends on your particular situation.
  • Make you incredibly fearful of ‘Submit’ buttons.
  • Suddenly make you religious. In your head you’ll find yourself subconsciously saying a little prayer to the Gods of software and internet that your return is submitted successfully.
  • Make you hate Error messages even more than usual.
  • Start treating your computer like a precious object. No one is allowed within a two metre radius of it until the self assessment has been submitted. Each entry and mouse press is taken with extra care to prevent any mistakes being made.

frustrated kit

My expectations of the online user experience for completing your self assessment were that it would be easy. After all I’d seen the adverts on TV and the posters all over in the past claiming ‘Tax doesn’t have to be taxing’. My expectations couldn’t have been more wrong! Firstly I logged into the website using my login details and as I’d already told them I was a partnership I was expecting some kind of wizard to take me through the whole process online. But I couldn’t see any call-to-actions to say ‘Begin here!’ so I found myself aimlessly clicking on every hyperlink I could find. I just couldn’t find the starting point. I felt like Sarah in the movie Labyrinth who can’t work out how to get into the labyrinth.

So I went to my old pal Google. After some time I found an article that mentioned needing software to submit a partnership tax return. This was all a bit odd, I thought you could just use the HMRC site. Anyway it turns out you need to purchase software to submit a partnership return which is why there wasn’t a clear starting point on the website. I wish they’d explained this in big text as soon as I logged in. The site is very much aimed at people who have completed a previous self assessment and know what they’re doing.

I then had the task of trawling through lots of software websites and downloading demos to find something easy to use. This took time… Most were really, really bad. I’m so surprised that something everyone has to do can be made so complex. I’m educated up to MSc level, good with computers and I often have to understand complex problems so I can’t imagine how bad it must be for more novice users.

I finally decided on FTAX as it was basically a pdf version of the actual form. It looked more familiar and it had some intelligence – when you completed fields it automatically calculated other fields. It was still an unpleasant experience. The form started having what looked like a fit at one stage and would not stay on the page I wanted at all. Bear in mind I was feeling quite stressed at this point. The form was obviously evil and deliberately trying to wind me up even more. It wouldn’t behave itself until the following day and I then managed to complete all the fields.

Finally, I plucked up the courage to press the Submit button. It didn’t work. No response whatsoever. More stress. My partner tried it on his machine and hooray it worked! But oh no it failed! Errors written in the worst possible technical language imaginable beamed at me from the screen, giving me their equivalent of the middle finger. After a few attempts at tweaking random things I’m relieved to say that the form did eventually submit itself. Hooray! I can’t wait to go through it all again next year, not. I’ll definitely be employing an accountant next time because as i’ve found out tax IS incredibly taxing and should be left to the professionals until HMRC employ user experience designers to completely redesign the whole software!

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