Omni-channel Service Design
A 180-hour software research project which included behavioral and ergonomic research at six retail tax offices in the Chicago metro area.
- To prepare for the 2022 Tax Year product release, the DIY Tax Software team enlisted my support in conducting research to inform prioritization of feature updates.
- H&R Block wanted an independent, third-party perspective to help product teams understand the retail tax professional’s experience comprehensively, design systems accommodating multiple ways to file, and create better processes for the Tax Pro.
- The project evaluated four different retail products and the retail tax preparation software used in over 10,000 H&R Block retail tax offices.
- Recommendations resulted in enterprise-level enhancements that aimed to improve the retail office’s operational efficiencies, identify new service opportunities, and created a 360° view of the customer.
- Additionally, the project helped innovate a better customer experience for the retail ergonomics of tax preparation interviews (furniture, tools, screens) that supported tax pro and customer engagement during tax preparation appointments.
Impact and Key Metrics
The H&R Block Director of Product Design Andrew Clark described my evaluation and research as “extraordinary— like a dental hygiene appointment when we hadn’t been to the dentist in a while— rough but absolutely necessary.”
From (Tax Year) 2021 to 2022, the teams working on H&R Block DIY + Premium:
- Increased new customers who indicated intent to return by 80.4%.
- Increased the number of users who uploaded documents (prior to visiting a tax pro) by 86%.
- Increased the number of users beginning their return prior to their retail appointment by 205%.
- Increased the total number of digital drop-off invites sent by retail tax agents by 347%.
Roles and Responsibilities
The goal was to unite product teams’ understanding of four customer product experiences (fully online, fully in-office, hybrid, and online with remote help) and conduct research on adjacent systems such as CSO calls, online appointments, and MyBlock messages.
- Conducted on-site job shadowing and qualitative interviews with 12 retail tax pros to understand their usage of the H&R Block retail tax preparation systems.
- Research yielded over 500 unique usage observations related to the Work Center and BlockWorks experiences, as well as more than 1000 qualitative data points pertaining to 4 Block tax prep software experiences.
Off-Site Testing and Evaluation
- Conducted heuristic walk-thru on the Block DIY tax software using realistic data provided by the marketing team with the objective of identifying design flaws and improving user experience.
- Performed QA research that identified and cataloged over 100 significant errors, including unresponsive design, incompatible browsers, and confusing user interactions.
- Evaluated and prioritized problems like the inability of users to print screens on certain browsers and inactive clickable throughout the tax prep journey.
In-Depth Solution Discussion
↳ Tax Pro Review
- Contextual inquiry and user interviews with retail tax agents found that a “review” upsell option was causing staffing overload issues at retail sites because the system UI inadvertently led users to believe they could submit incomplete tax filings without making an earnest attempt to upload all the required documents. Users frequently viewed “free review” as an “exit ramp” assistance option that would free them from the tedious data entry process.
- Additionally, research focused on the framework for requesting documents from the end-user, which resulted in modifications to the ways that systems and tax pros communicated which documents were required for different return types.
- Research also led to modifications in the back office system used by retail offices, changing the way managers assigned tax pro review tasks to employees.
↳ Online Assist
- Research findings showed that users struggled with basic product terminology, such as distinguishing between “Online Assist” and “Online Help.” “Online Help” provided users with access to a chat feature, while “Online Assist” allowed them to speak with a qualified tax professional during their online preparation process.
- Simply put, users were confusing marketing messages with system help messages.
- Recommended fixes included changing product language to “Upgrade for Assistance,” clearly labeling “Help” to showcase system help options, and making an adjustment to the design language system to deprioritize the visual importance of the marketing message vs. the system help messages.
↳ Call Service (CSO)
- Heuristic analysis and product testing revealed significant potential for experiencing issues with H&R Block’s automated and staffed call centers.
- Customers had difficulty finding the correct phone number to call, and difficulty receiving the responses they needed— this was triangulated by interviews with retail agents.
- We also provided feedback on the CSO system scripts in the context of the full user journey, allowing call center managers to adjust their training protocols for staff to troubleshoot effectively.
↳ Virtual Tax
- Friction points in document upload protocols were identified by comparing H&R Block’s system to their closest competitor, Intuit TurboTax.
- The team received and implemented recommendations (triangulated with supporting evidence from retail agent interviews) on ways to improve system status indications during uploads and information that helped the team better understand the challenges users face when gathering and preparing documents.
↳ Virtual Tax “Interview”
- During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a growing demand for users to complete their taxes online with the help of a verified H&R Block tax pro.
- Block primarily relied on existing teams of retail tax preparers to staff the majority of virtual tax processes and systems.
- To address this, researchers partnered with a local tax professional to complete a standard retail interview online— providing a new perspective to complement the insights gathered during the contextual inquiry and on-site observation with retail tax agents.
- The project resulted in recommended changes to contact workflows, retail agent training on hardware system use (including camera positioning and audio settings), and modifications to automated messaging protocols.
- In 2020, retail tax agents began using a new system that enabled them to manage appointments, send document requests, share returns, and communicate with customers. However, the product was not adopted as quickly as expected, and usage data (triangulated with interviews and observation) revealed retail preparers felt the system was unreliable.
- Further investigation revealed that UI design issues were causing misunderstandings about process workflows and project actions. For example, users found two different document request options to be indistinguishable— they didn’t know which one to use and (consequently) frequently used the wrong one.
- System notifications were also problematic, with equal urgency priority given to extraneous tasks and frequent client modifications.
- These issues were exacerbated by the retail agent’s perception that the system UI has been designed by someone who had “never worked as a retail tax preparation agent” and the fact that notifications were not adjustable by end-users.
- Solutions were found through simple, iterative changes to UI that showed greater fidelity to the in-office process that has been mapped by “on the ground” retail agents.
↳ Retail Ergonomics
- H&R Block tax preparation offices have client-facing companion monitors next to agent-facing tax preparation monitors.
- To understand how retail agents used the system, the project included observing a dozen tax preparation sessions.
- The agents used coping strategies to take shortcuts, continue work during system crashes, and avoid required upsells on the companion monitor.
- Marketing staff believed the upsell messages weren’t converting because of design, but the research found that users were circumventing some process-designed upsells.
Challenges and Hurdles
Not Fully Embedded Within Product Team
- A primary challenge of this project was its third-party evaluation nature.
- The researchers were not part of the product team but were hired by the marketing team to conduct behavioral research on Block employees (about 50% of the project hours) and off-site heuristic evaluation and product testing (the remaining 50%).
Insufficient Associate Training on New Features and Processes
- Another major challenge of the project was the disconnect between corporate software training processes, which were under marketing instead of the product team.
- Some retail tax agents expressed dissatisfaction with the training culture, which they said had become repetitive and unengaging.
- The project ultimately recommended that H&R Block improve communication with retail agents about software changes through hiring more eLearning staff and promoting cross-functional collaboration between learning resource designers and the product team to improve user feedback.
Technical documentation for this project is the property of H&R Block and is protected by significant non-disclosure agreements (for reasons that should seem obvious).
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I'm currently open to project-based or full-time experience design roles working with research and strategy-obsessed teams.