Susan Harkus

This is a true story.

Only the names of the people and government department involved have been changed to protect the innocent and the foolish.

Not long ago…

In very recent times, the Internal Revenue Department of an unnamed country decided to move as much taxation paperwork as possible to its clients, in particular, to the accountants who manage the tax affairs of businesses and individual taxpayers.

The Department accepted its responsibility to support compliance with taxation legislation but wanted to deliver the bulk of that support through online channels such as email, internets, and extranets.

Driven by a great desire to deliver value to clients, the Department embarked on a “Listening to Users” program and commissioned a tribe of consultants to conduct many, many, many focus groups across the length and breadth of the land.

A problem they could fix!

The focus groups revealed that accountants had a real problem. As accountants, they managed most of the taxation obligations of their clients but they weren’t always aware of payments that their clients made to the Internal Revenue Department.

The solution

The Department was delighted. The solution was well within its control to provide. Of course payment information could be made available.

The Department implemented a system that maintained up-to-date pdf documents listingall the payments of all the clients of each accountant. Accountants could download their own PDF file at any time.

BUT… how did the accountant know that the last PDF downloaded had the latest information on a particular client? It was easier to ring up the taxation service line and do paperwork as the accountant waited on hold, rather than to constantly download large files for a single inquiry.

Fix #1

The PDF was abolished. Accountants could log in to the extranet, search for a client, and look up the client’s particular transaction data.

Accountants now logged in to use the system but with use came the next problem. Accountants could see what their clients were paying the Department but had no idea what the payment was. A tax instalment? A value added tax payment?

Fix #2… and success

The “Listening” program continued, descriptions were added to transaction amounts and after many months, accountants had a service that gave them value.

Fix cycle consequences: A tale of three tax agents

I was told this story by three different accountants.

Blaise told me about the service when I asked him if he had used the Department’s extranet. “I really want client transaction history but that involves downloading PDFs of all my clients when I’m just doing a single client lookup. Total waste of time. I don’t use the service.”

I asked Claude what she thought of the PDF solution and she looked surprised. “What PDF solution? You just log in and lookup a particular client’s details. It’s useless though. You only see a list of payment amounts. You have no idea what the amounts are for. I don’t use the service at all.”

Claude told me that one accountant in her office used the service and thought it was OK—much to her surprise. I asked her to find out why Jipé used the service. And the answer was… because he could look up a particular client and get the descriptive information he needed!

Moral of this tale

Because of my investigations, Blaise and Claude discovered “fix #2” but without my probing, both would have continued to ignore what they considered a no-value service.

Users don’t usually follow your software or websites through the fix and fix again cycle. You need to deliver the value proposition the first time around.

Why did the fix and fix again cycle occur?

The puzzling aspect of this saga of wasted time and rework is why the value proposition took so long to discover. The Department knew, and has always known, how accountants “do their business.”

It really doesn’t matter whether the solution is information, an application function, or website content, the value of the solution is determined by its relevance to the user’s context, that interesting mix of internal and external performance drivers that include priorities, expectations, objectives, and pressures.

The problem was that in designing the solution, the Department ignored their own knowledge of the context in which the information would be used. Instead of applying their own insights, the Department, through consultants, asked their users for direction, when users never spend time thinking about their performance context. They just DO!

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell recognised the “Power of Context” as a key element in the emergence of social epidemics. For me, it is also the factor that determines user engagement with information and services.