In May 2021, we launched one of our first products: Steuerlotse. With the Steuerlotse, retirees and pensioners without additional income can now file their tax returns online. It is a web-based service that requires no installation and makes it easy for the target group to file their tax returns quickly and digitally. The Steuerlotse is available to users for their 2020 tax returns at www.steuerlotse-rente.de.
The Steuerlotse was developed by us, DigitalService4Germany GmbH, the in-house software development unit of the federal government, on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Finance. We continue to develop and improve the service based on feedback from users.
From Tech4Germany prototype to implementation by DigitalService4Germany
Four German states (Brandenburg, Bremen, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and Saxony) had already developed a simplified paper tax return (EZVA) for pensioners in 2019. Based on this paper form, a digital prototype was developed by four fellows in cooperation with the BMF (Federal Ministry of Finance) during our 2020 Tech4Germany Fellowship. A prototype is a simplified version of a final product that exemplifies the benefits and application areas of a product.
The Fellowship confirmed the need for a digital solution such as the Steuerlotse. It also demonstrated the overall positive response from the target group. The Digital Service was commissioned in December 2020 to further develop the prototype into a fully comprehensive and usable online service.
The goal of any further development was to enable the operation of the service in production. In design, we again conducted user tests, but now with a focus on the usability of specific elements and comprehensibility of the user flows. The technical foundations, which were laid during the fellowship, had to be expanded. This was particularly important for the technical infrastructure in order to make permanent live operation possible. The software runs on cloud infrastructure, for which we found a suitable service provider in Berlin. This guarantees full compliance with data protection regulation and the modern stack affords a high level of security. There was much to do also in terms of operations. Unlike prototypical solutions, an online service needs concepts regarding security, data protection, and maintenance plus corresponding operational processes.
The Steuerlotse is tailored to a target group that has made limited use of digital services in the past due to their complexity. Developing a customized product for a target group that incorporates specific needs and acknowledges individual levels of know-how, thereby enabling digital participation for a wider audience fits perfectly with our mission to develop digital products that work better for everyone.
A product adapted to the needs of its users
In conversations with potential users we identified the biggest challenges the target group was facing regarding their tax returns: the fear of making mistakes, lack of information, uncertainty about digital solutions, and the identification process. These challenges occured not only when filling out the form, but also when preparing it. Hence, the Steuerlotse focuses on four phases of action: Introduction, Guidance, Identification, and Completion. When designing the service, our emphasis was on enabling users and ensuring they have high confidence throughout the process. We used the following as guiding principles:
We developed the service for a specific target group in collaboration with that target group. User-centricity was at the core of our development. All in all, we have incorporated findings from more than 50 hours of interviews. In initial discussions with users we zoomed in on the problem. During product development we conducted monthly test rounds with users to adapt the usability of the Steuerlotse to their needs, knowledge, and abilities. Findings from the test rounds have primarily led to our understanding of how the page and the navigation must be structured to optimally guide users through the process.
Easy to use
Our goal was to design the service in such a way that users would not doubt their abilities while using it. During development we had to fundamentally question our assumptions and own habits, since the target group has vastly different mental models than the digital native group most websites today cater to.
For example, text hierarchy, habits and how users are addressed play a particularly important role for our target group. We used print as inspiration and followed patterns found there instead of some common interface design patterns. The main navigation is not called "Menu" but "Table of Content", and it is not folded out at the top page, but fixed on the left edge of the screen, serving as an orientation aid throughout the process. The home page is the "Overview".
Users are guided step by step through the process and there is a limited amount of information to avoid being overwhelmed by multiple interaction options.
Focus on the essentials
The fact that the existing functions and input fields have been reduced to the essentials also helps to ensure that the Steuerlotse is easy to use. Narrowing the target group allowed us to also reduce the number of inputs, as compared to other, more universal tax return tools. In this, the Steuerlotse replicates the parameters of its paper predecessor (EZVA).
The website's functions are currently also minimal. For example, in favor of simplicity, we did not include a visible user account or dashboard in the first version of the Steuerlotse. Based on feedback from users we will develop and add more functionalities that will provide added value for the tax return filing process in future development phases.
Link to an existing solution
Steuerlotse uses the Elster interface "ERiC" (Elster Rich Client) to transmit data. We are pleased to be able to build on the Elster ecosystem, because it means that existing systems as well as secure infrastructure can be made available to new users. The Steuerlotse combines the secure digital infrastructure of Elster with insights from the experts who already address the target group with the paper form, EZVA.
Security and data economy
Steuerlotse requests data only when it is needed and stores it only when it is required by law. Data is always sent and stored in encrypted form and, where possible, hashed. Steuerlotse only transmits the data to the tax authorities. Personal data is only forwarded through the service - not processed for other purposes.
The source code of the Steuerlotsen can be found here: https://github.com/digitalservice4germany/steuerlotse
Further development based on user needs
Starting May 31, Steuerlotse has been a fully functional product, supporting the minimum set of functions required to fulfill its purpose. This allows the service to quickly add value for citizens. In the coming months, we will continue to collect feedback and, based on the feedback, further develop the service.
If you have any feedback on the Steuerlotse, we welcome you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org