Building Tools to Meet Our Clients’ Needs

With GetCTC, we’re showing that usability testing is a key part of our process building services that center the needs of our clients
  • Qualitative Researcher,
    Code for America
  • Design Manager,
    Code for America
  • Qualitative Research Manager,
    Code for America
Two people wearing masks sit at a table with. their computers and post it notes
Designer Anu Murthy sitting with Qualitative Researcher Nicole Rappin waiting to conduct in-person usability interviews. Qualitative Researcher Betsy Valu Rohney is shy and stands behind the camera.

In August, we debuted GetCTC, a simple, tax filing portal that helps people and families claim the Child Tax Credit and any stimulus checks they might have missed. Like all the tools we build, GetCTC went through an extensive testing process to ensure it was accessible, easy to use, and could meet our clients where they are. We knew some things about who might use a portal designed for people with low or no incomes: that they might access it on a mobile phone, that they might need to see options in multiple languages, and that they might face challenges uploading required verification documents. But to learn more about how to best shape the tool to meet their needs, we embarked on a process known as usability testing.    

As designers and researchers, this is a critical method for collecting insights. At its core, this process is relatively simple: after we’ve built a new product or service, we ask people in the target demographic to perform tasks in the tool and note any challenges that occur as they use it. These tests inform changes we make before the product debuts to a wider audience. In many ways, usability testing is an embodiment of our core values of listening first, including those who have been excluded, and acting with intention. Here’s how the process works in more detail.

First, we find participants. When choosing participants, we always make sure that they are representative of the people who will use our service. For the testing of GetCTC, we partnered with community organizations such as Bay Area Legal Aid and National Domestic Workers Alliance. While COVID-19 has made outreach more difficult, we still received feedback from VITA volunteers (who help people with low incomes file taxes) and people who haven’t filed taxes in over two years, with a focus on parents who are eligible to file for the Child Tax Credit.

Next, we conduct usability tests. During a usability test, researchers observe people using a tool or a website without coaching. We want to see how real people naturally understand the product, the content, and the functionality. We are on the lookout for where they get stuck, or confused, or where they interpret something in a different way than we intended. Especially for products like ours, where most potential clients complete the form on their own, these observations give us critical insight into what we need to change or adjust to make sure people are successful in getting their benefits. 

We often ask participants to go through a product page by page. When we worked on GetCTC usability testing, one sticking point for participants was the Earned Income page, which asks client about their income and their preferred way of claiming their tax benefits. There are two options: filing a “simplified” return that allows someone to claim the CTC or any missed stimulus checks, or filing a “full” return using GetYourRefund. When asked what their impression of the page was, many participants questioned the difference between the two options. 

“So, this is an e-filing tool that will guide you to do your child tax credit and the stimulus payment checks.” - Participant 6

“Hmm, but what is this ‘return’? I don’t understand what would be a ‘full return’?” -Participant 7

“This gives me a way to complete an old return or to choose to start a new one. I'm not sure which one to click.” - Participant 4

There are no right or wrong answers in usability testing. Understanding where participants get stuck in the flow of a product raises questions that determine what changes we make next to improve accessibility. For the GetCTC portal, this process generated questions like: What, exactly, do participants know about the Child Tax Credit? Do they know the difference between “simplified” and “full” tax filing? How can we make this distinction more clear?

a participant scrolls through a screen on the GetCTC tool
A UserTesting participant scrolling through the “earned income” page on GetCTC.org.

Once we’ve met with clients, we synthesize the data. After testing, we come together to brainstorm ways to answer questions raised in the process. If several participants are confused at the same point in the flow of the product, we pay special attention to things that might be unclear, like the wording of prompts or the layout of buttons. 

After we tested with our GetCTC usability participants, we grouped quotes from them into categories by “section” (where they are located in the flow of the portal) and “page” (the exact page within the flow). Using an Airtable spreadsheet, we coded each quote with the appropriate tag to find patterns in the data. Once patterns emerged, we developed insights and created recommendations for the rest of the team. One big point of confusion for our participants seemed to be around the distinction between filing a full tax return and a simplified one, so we highlighted that as an area for improvement.

a screenshot of a spreadsheet with client quotes in it
An Airtable spreadsheet where we keep quotes from clients.

Finally, we make changes based on feedback. Every piece of feedback we receive during usability testing gets considered as we iterate on a product or service. When it makes sense to redesign things or otherwise implement changes, we roll out a new version of the product or a new specific page within its flow. With that in mind, *drumroll please* here’s the new iteration of the Earned Income page for the GetCTC portal!

a screenshot of the new page for GetCTC that asks what type of return the client would like to file

Sometimes, the changes that result from usability testing are simple—but despite their simplicity, they make a big difference. Here, we changed the text on this page to provide more explanation about the options a client can choose from when deciding between filing a full tax return and a simplified one. We then updated the simplified filing option to match our “primary” button style, shown here in black, which guides clients through the application along the “happy path”—the series of steps that leads to the optimal outcome, which in this case, means a client files a simplified return and claims the CTC. With these changes, clients can more fully understand what their next step is going to be. People who want to file a shorter, faster return to claim the Child Tax Credit and stimulus payments can click the “simplified return” button and continue through GetCTC.org. People who want to go about the longer process of filing a full return to claim all of their tax credits and withholdings can click the “File full tax return” button below where they will be guided to our full service application, GetYourRefund.org.

By relieving a point of confusion for many of our usability testing participants, our hope is that all those who use the tool after them will have an easier experience following the flow of the GetCTC portal. This one example is illustrative of how we conduct usability testing on all our tech tools. 

Usability testing is an ongoing process where we collect information from real people to make products like GetCTC as clear and easy to use as possible. Feedback loops like this are essential to our work, as they ensure we’re staying grounded in the real lived experience of our clients. A product that can’t be used easily by the people it’s intended for misses a big opportunity—and it means that those who would most benefit from the product or service get left behind. By including their voices early and throughout the design and building process, we make our tools stronger for them, and for everyone. We’re so grateful to our clients and the partners who have worked with us to improve this tool and others. Stay tuned for more behind-the-scenes content of the work that’s gone into building GetCTC and other tech tools.

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