Helping taxpayers when they’re due a refund

I helped HMRC to better serve the taxpayer by designing a service to track VAT repayments online.

Dates

Apr 2019 - November 2019

What I did
  • Interaction design
  • Service design
  • Front-end development

This case study will take you around ten minutes to read. Here’s a summary if you don’t have the time.

I worked with a government digital team to help taxpayers better understand when they’d receive a VAT repayment. Users got a better experience and HMRC saved money. You can skip to the outcomes to learn more.

When a VAT repayment is delayed, it can spell disaster for business as predicting cash flow is vital. Understandably, people want to know when they’ll get their money.

In 2018, HMRC had no online service to allow people to track their repayments. 50,000 people called the VAT helpline asking “where’s my money?”. To further complicate things, if a user hadn’t supplied bank details, HMRC had to send a cheque. Combined, telephone support and cheques cost HMRC around £1M a year. The business objective, naturally, was to reduce these costs.

I was part of a team who designed and built a new service that let users check their repayments anytime.

In the Discovery phase, we:

  • interviewed users to find out how they track repayments;
  • chatted with HMRC staff to understand the end-to-end repayments process;
  • ran workshops to identify the problems and places for improvement.

When a company submits a VAT return, it triggers a complex set of interactions between the user, employees and software. To understand this journey, we set about creating a service map.

This was a significant challenge; VAT is complex, involving many people and processes. There isn’t just one VAT team, so we spent a lot of our time trying to find out who could answer our questions.

For example, understating why a repayment might be delayed was particularly tricky. The vetting process for repayments is a closely guarded secret. It’s done on a case-by-case basis, and fraud can be a problem. Naturally, HMRC didn’t want to give away anything that might make it easier to cheat the system.

Mapping the service took weeks. At our daily standups, we slowly filled-in the process on our “wall of knowledge”.

I discuss the puzzle of VAT repayments with Kathy (user researcher) and Louise (content designer).

I discuss the puzzle of VAT repayments with Kathy (user researcher) and Louise (content designer).

Getting to know our users

Speaking with users, we found that for the majority, the repayments service was working well. But for the ~15% who had a problem tracking a repayment often meant confusion and multiple calls. These were the people for whom we needed to improve the service.

Furthermore, even those having a good experience were confused about how they’d be paid. For example, users thought that setting up a Direct Debit meant that repayments would be sent back to the same account. This isn’t true, people have to provide a “repayment account”. Without one, HMRC would send a cheque.

Our user researcher, Kathy, created a set of user needs:

  • tell users how they’d get their repayment;
  • notify users when they’d get their repayment;
  • tell users about any delay and inform them how to fix it;
  • tell users if HMRC had used repayments to offset other debt;
  • notify users when HMRC had sent repayment.

Routes in

When expecting a VAT repayment, most people simply wait for the money to arrive in their account. It’s only when this goes wrong they start looking for help. People did this in an unexpected number of ways. In fact, uncovering the routes in was quite the challenge. It was well worth the effort, though, as it revealed alternatives to building a digital service, namely:

  1. Building an API to allow third-party software vendors to provide tracking information in their MTD enabled software;
  2. Improve the automated phone assistant to give tracking information;
  3. Improving various other user touch-points, such as letters and online guidance;
  4. Extending the current Business Tax Account service to show repayment-tracking.
Typically there are multiple ways that users access government services; tracking a VAT repayment was no exception.

Typically there are multiple ways that users access government services; tracking a VAT repayment was no exception.

Pain points and opportunities

I translated all our findings into an “as-is” service blueprint. This allowed us to identify pain-points and opportunities by comparing the blueprint against the user needs. We were then able to rapidly spot areas for improvement.

The service blueprint of VAT repayments. Some elements have been deliberately blurred.

The service blueprint of VAT repayments. Some elements have been deliberately blurred.

In the Alpha phase, we:

  • “went wide” by generating as many ideas as possible;
  • got buy-in from the business for our general approach;
  • worked with other teams to improve the parts of the process we didn’t have direct control over;
  • and, built and tested some prototypes

Going wide

We now had a clearer understanding of the existing process and the problems facing our users. It was time to “go wide” to create as many ideas as possible. I usually like to involve as many people in this part as possible. By engaging with a big group who have familiarity with different elements of the service, you often end up with unexpected solutions.

For this project, I ran an ideas workshop with stakeholders from HMRC and other designs from the digital centre. We focused on two, deceptively simple-looking questions:

  • How might we make calling HMRC the last thing people think of when worrying about their VAT repayments?
  • How might we make a repayment by cheque a thing of the past?

This is always my favourite part of the design process: Working with people who wouldn’t call themselves creative and seeing them come up with ingenious ideas. Having other designers in a workshop is excellent, but involve others who actually work on the thing you’re trying to improve, and you’ve got magic!

I ran an ideas workshop with some brilliant stakeholders and other designers to explore how we could solve VAT tracking end-to-end.

I ran an ideas workshop with some brilliant stakeholders and other designers to explore how we could solve VAT tracking end-to-end.

This is always my favourite part of the design process: Working with people who wouldn’t call themselves creative and seeing them come up with ingenious ideas.

Buy-in from the business

In HMRC Digital, we work alongside other parts of the revenue—what we loving refer to as “the business”. There’s naturally a lot of red-tape in government, and solutions can be narrowed early. So we needed to get buy-in before we did any serious testing with users. I put together some options in Sketch. The intention was to demonstrate a general direction to the business.

Idea one: The simple tracker

They say lead with your weakest idea. Or, in our case, the one you don’t want to be approved. This solution, we felt, would offer some reassurance but not enough to prevent calls to the helpline. But it was cheaper to develop, and we knew that cost was a factor.

The simple tracker would have shown the latest status for each repayment in progress. However, we knew that our users would probably want to see as much detail as possible.

The simple tracker would have shown the latest status for each repayment in progress. However, we knew that our users would probably want to see as much detail as possible.

Idea two: The integrated tracker

In some ways, this solution would have made a lot of sense. We proposed that we allowed users to track repayments directly as part of their VAT account dashboard.

The integrated tracker was never going to fly as it meant we’d have to hand the work over to another team. When cost centres have more sway than user need all you can do is roll with the punches, but it’s a shame when business structure imposes itself on the UX.

A concept where repayment are shown in place of payment due on the VAT account dashboard. Blending the tracker with the VAT account may have worked, but we didn’t get the opportunity to test it.

A concept where repayment are shown in place of payment due on the VAT account dashboard. Blending the tracker with the VAT account may have worked, but we didn’t get the opportunity to test it.

Idea three: The third-party tracker

Thanks to the Making Tax Digital programme, VAT payers were now submitting tax returns from MTD compatible software. We thought it probable that people would want to see any repayments progress in the same place, too. We thought providing an API would be an ideal addition to any service hosted on GOV.UK. The business agreed but proposed funding the API work as part of a possible second phase.

Idea four: The deluxe tracker

The deluxe tracker was created to show complete information about repayments. By providing a full history of statuses with an explanation of what they meant, we could hit every one of the user needs. Thankfully, the business agreed and green-lit further work on this solution.

Moving closer to a solution

Now we had a direction agreed, we could start testing and improving the deluxe tracker.

Alerts

One of the things we explored was the idea of alerts: where a user could sign-up for a notification when their repayment moved from one stage to another.

I mapped out how this could work. Based on the states we knew a repayment could move through, I knew that some users would receive some alerts in quick succession, then non at all for weeks. We decided to concentrate our effort elsewhere and revisit alerts later. This tuned out to be a wise decision; during testing, we saw there wasn’t really any user need for alerts. People generally prefer to log-in and check-up rather than be pushed to by a message. Even those that said this might be useful admitted they’d ignore an email. Text messages were a better option, but expensive to develop for not much benefit.

Mapping alerts. A diagram showing the various alerts a user of the VAT repayments service might receive. Some parts are have been intentionally blurred.

Mapping alerts. A diagram showing the various alerts a user of the VAT repayments service might receive. Some parts are have been intentionally blurred.

When will I get my repayment?

One thing that kept coming up in testing was the question “when will I get my repayment?” We felt that without showing dates, we wouldn’t put a dent in the volume of calls to the helpline.

The problem was that we couldn’t just pull a date out of an API as no such data existed. We did, however, know when the user had submitted their return and how long HMRC allowed for repayments; at 30 days HMRC would have to pay a “repayment supplement” if the delay was their fault. So we tested a version with an approximate date. This worked great!

If repayments were delayed beyond 30 days, we added a new timeline item to the history acknowledging this and providing guidance on what the user could try next.

This also prompted us to redesign the tracker history page. Making the amount and estimate date front-and-centre worked well during testing.

Users love the service!

Track your VAT repayments had 91% customer satisfaction (CSAT) score from ~346,000 active sessions.

We reduced calls

We saw that ~24,000 fewer people called the VAT helpline compared to the same period in the previous year.

We saved HMRC money

By reducing calls and decreasing repayment by cheque, we saved a substantial amount of money.

The data is from the first 12 months of the service. Some results are inferred from service volumes and task completion rates.