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Designing an Income Tax Filing Website

[Editorial notes: Here is a guest article contributed by Archit Gupta, founder of ClearTax.in. In this article, Archit discusses some of the specifics he learnt while designing the ClearTax service.]

Designing an Income Tax website presents a unique challenge. People loathe and fear taxes. They simply aren’t in a good mood when they get near a tax filing website.  We deal with this everyday. Many people think we are fantastic in our user experience and design. Here are some thoughts on designing an Income Tax Filing Website.

Our design philosophy

Preparing an Income Tax Return is somewhat difficult work. Its not intellectually hard like solving a tough math equation. It is a time consuming activity, you have to gather all the documents, fill in a few forms, make sure you don’t make mistakes.

The hardest part is actually that nagging feeling:
“Oh this is so complex. I am definitely making a mistake.”
“Oh, I am definitely over-paying on my taxes.”
“Oh did I just under-pay my taxes?”
“Will I get into trouble with the Income Tax Department? The I-T Department is going to screw me.”

We understand this feeling. We went through this feeling year after year.
We created ClearTax with the goal to make the tax filing process as simple as possible. As clear as possible. We go into work every day and ask ourselves: If Apple created a tax filing website, what would they do?
With this design philosophy, taxes are never boring. Its a game for us. How do we unlock the next level of awesome!
So in my opinion, having a design philosophy is crucial. It lets you focus on presenting what’s important. Ours is simplicity. Clarity. Customer empathy.

simple-pricing

Hiding complexity

Income Tax Returns can be very complex depending on what kind of a Income Source you earn from, the kind of deductions you claim. For most people though, the income tax return is pretty simple. You just need to fill a few values from your Form-16 and the tax return is done. This creates a lot of tension in designing the UI and designing the flow customers will take when they proceed with their Income Tax Return.

In most of our webpages, we show only one or two concepts. You typically have to click one button and that’s “Save”. So no ambiguity, no complex decisions to make.

You just need to understand what’s in front of you – its usually a form with 3 to 6 fields. Fill that and hit “Save”. We’ll take you to the next item.

A lot of people over the age of 50 have filed tax returns with us. So we are extremely pleased in that regard.

Feedback is crucial

If you have a consumer product, try to get regular feedback from good visual design guys. Visual design people have a strong sense of aesthetics. I have always benefited from their feedback. Good designers are difficult to find.

Being Opinionated

I proclaim in the “About Us” page: “tax filing as tasty as chai mein duuba hua biscuit.” (Tax filing as tasty as biscuit dipped in tea). This gets me a bit of flak. People say its unprofessional, it looks cheap, etc etc. There are multiple instances of phrases I have used which are conversational rather than official.

We have an opinion and we express it. You should too. Zach Holman has this great essay on “The Apple voice”. Fred Wilson discusses a product’s Minimum Viable Personality. Ben Horowitz uses Hip hop music to preface all his blog posts.

Its your product. Make it your own.

Performance is a feature

I am hyper-aware of the performance of our website. We actually have a public page on our site’s current performance! We are shipping some code soon that will make our site 3x faster. Speed is a design feature. A more eloquent Jeff Atwood writes about the public nature of the performance of Stack Overflow.

Front-end Programming

I am mostly a systems guy. I worked on backup storage systems in California. I have published papers on building efficient network routers on the Internet backbone. When I started ClearTax, I hadn’t hand-coded an html page ever. CSS still scares me. But I learnt just enough to get by.
I started by reading basic tutorials. I picked up the Blueprint CSS framework and HTML5 Boilerplate. There are better options now like Twitter Bootstrap. With the right starting point, your product can look good on iPads and Mobile phone browsers. I think if you are technical, you should absolutely learn how to write HTML, JS and CSS. Don’t let it scare you away from creating good stuff.

Cliche of the day: “Great artists steal”.

Most people care about how your product looks, so make sure your visual design looks ok. I steal design from other great designers on the Internet. I steal copy-writing from sites I like. I steal their funnel design. You should too. Keep notes of good things you see on the Internet.
We don’t do much AJAX on most of our pages. Our target audience is your mom. She did not grow up using a computer. So we try to keep the site simple in its user experience. If you click on “Save” we save synchronously and make you wait. Its a design decision we made. We might change it in the future, but mostly we are trying to make non-technical people feel good when they use our website.

Constant Improvement

Writing our own code lets us create concepts quickly, iterate and ship after a few hours of thought. We have a ton of areas where we need to improve. Our users give us feedback and we keep making things better. We ship almost everyday. This is important. Reduce friction from idea to execution, and you’ll able to iterate faster.

TL;DR

  • Have a design philosophy.
  • Hide complexity. Or keep it simple.
  • Get feedback from designers.
  • Have a unique voice.
  • Steal ideas.
  • Improve everyday.
  • Write code internally.

Give cleartax.in a whirl and share your recommendations. Give us a shout if you like or don’t like something. We listen.

[Author Archit Gupta is the Founder of ClearTax.in based out of New Delhi. ClearTax is a nifty service for filing Income Tax Returns online for Individuals and Businesses.  Prior to founding ClearTax, he worked as Member of Technical Staff at Data Domain Inc in Santa Clara, California. Data Domain was acquired by EMC Corp for $2.1B. He received his Bachelors degree from IIT Guwahati and Masters from University of Wisconsin Madison in Computer Sciences.  He is building his first business and he sometimes blogs about his experiences. – @architgupta.]

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