The citizen experience: to guide or not to guide?
Earlier this week I presented at the Federation of Tax Administrations Technology Conference in Atlanta. This event looks at how technology can be used to improve and streamline state tax collection and administration. While many of the sessions dealt with some tax specific issues, these agencies shared many the same challenges other government agencies deal with when interacting with their constituents. One question that came up on a couple different occasions centered on the right way to optimize the experience offered through self-service channels so that work can be shifted away from high-cost channels (like paper processing or call centers). In particular the question was: will people adopt self-service channels more with guided online interactions or an electronic form that resembles a paper form?
By guided online interaction, I’m referring to a self-service experience that is more like a wizard. A good example of this type of wizard-like interface would be Intuit’s TurboTax. With a guided online interaction, the user is asked a series of interactive questions. The interface is designed to hide some of the complexity of the underlying process. By electronic form, I’m referring to an online form that closely resembles its paper counterpart. Both of these two options permit electronic data capture, built in business logic, and online submission.
So is one better than the other? As you might expect, the answer is “it depends”. The wizard approach is used successfully when the user base isn’t familiar with the process and when the process is very complicated. An example would be HRMC who uses a guided experience for their new online corporate tax filing interface. You can see a demo here. This experience guides the user through what might have otherwise been a complicated, 80 page tax form. For the many small businesses and charities that use the form, this filing experience is now much simpler.
However, agencies still find that the experiences delivered as an electronic form that looks like the paper form can be desirable. One audience member in my session made the comment that they had offered a guided online submission experience targeting businesses and decided later to switch it to a electronic form with a paper-like look and feel. Why? The business constituents requested it. They were sophisticated, regular users already used to the paper form and felt like it was too slow to use the guided, interactive questions. They were very familiar with the old paper form and knew how to fill it out very quickly. So this agency switched to an electronic form that mimicked the familiar look of the paper form but that could be electronically submitted. Another common reason for using a paper-like electronic form interface is when the electronic version must look exactly like the actual paper version for legal reasons.
So, as usual, the answer to which citizen interface is ideal isn’t clear cut. Among other things you must consider user familiarity, process complexity, and regulations. Thankfully, there are technology aspects that can simplify supporting both experiences. It is possible to use one shared, underlying technical representation that can be presented to the user as either a guided experience or a Dynamic PDF. This can give you some flexibility to more easily support either style of interface. This simplifies delivering either solution given that both guided and paper-like versions can have their place depending on your citizens and situation.