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Responsive Web Design

Episode 100: Australian Tax Office

How does responsive design fit into large ecosystems, with touchpoints that span multiple devices and channels? Jonathon Thorpe from the Australian Tax Office talks about providing digital services at scale.

Embarking on a responsive design, do it, but consider all the touchpoints to make sure you’re designing experiences, not products.

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This Week’s Guest

Jonathon Thorpe

Assistant Commissioner, Digital Delivery, ATO Corporate

In Jonathon’s role as Assistant Commissioner, Digital Delivery, he has driven transformational change and a broad program of work to ensure a better online experience to the Australian community, including implementing:

  • the Beta site which allows testing and measurement of new concepts before they graduate to our live site – providing real-world testing with the community.
  • a range of improvements to, driven by user feedback, research and data, including content rationalisation and search improvements.
  • social media command centres, transforming the way we interact with customers and positioning us as leaders in social media capability and customer engagement.

Episode Transcript


Hi, this is a Responsive Web Design Podcast, where we interview the people who make responsive designs happen. I’m your host, Ethan Marcotte, and sadly this week I am flying solo as Karen McGrane is traveling. But that doesn’t change the fact that I am beside myself with excitement to be speaking with Jonathon Thorpe, who’s coming to us from the Australian Tax Office. Jonathon, thanks so much for joining us.


Thank you very much, Ethan. Great to be here.


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So Jonathon, for our listeners, could you just tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do at the ATO. Just paint a bit of a story there.


Yeah, sure. So, I’m assistant commissioner in the Australian Taxation Office. I’ve got the pleasure of looking after a range of digital products and services, one of which is obviously the website. But we also have a range of supporting capabilities, from social media, video production, but also building more into the things like component libraries to support other transaction and portal-related services. So, essentially the work that I do touches almost every digital asset that we have, and more so what the customers see essentially. So, that’s sort of my sphere of responsibility.


Fantastic. Well, while we’re talking about what the customer sees, maybe you could tell us a little bit about how this redesign of the ATO website actually got started. Specifically, I’d love to hear a little bit about any early conversations you had with stakeholders and if there were any questions that came up about responsive design as a methodology.


Yeah, sure. So, I guess the website is something that’s existed for the ATO for quite some years. Much like most government organizations, its establishment of a web service occurred in the late ‘90s, and since then it’s been iterating over time—not so much iterating from an agile point of view, but iterating in terms of features, functions, and as new policies or legislation changes over time.

At around about 2011, we started to look at the opportunity for responsive web design, and I must say, at that point our organization certainly wasn’t across the need to make sure that the digital services that we’re starting to offer traverse a range of platforms and devices. It was very much just about “you offer a website” and it doesn’t have that digital knowledge or concept that you need to have a capability that can support a whole range of mechanisms and environments.

What we did was we started quite small. In terms of rather than trying to do a transformational piece for our main website, we started with something a bit smaller. We have what we call an annual report, which most government organizations and financial institutions do, and that has what we refer to as a microsite. We started with a responsive web design in that space to do a couple of things: one, prove that it can provide utility and value without compromising and detail; and the other piece is to build confidence within the organization, to say, well, not only does it not cause any impact, it actually adds value.

What starts to follow from that point forward was a conversation across the organization around, “Well, what does it mean? Where are we going to go with things like mobile apps? What does that mean for our website?” and so forth. We didn’t hit responsive web design for our full site, our main site—which, just for context, roughly about sixty-eight million unique visits a year—until about the end of 2013. And I must say, our first implementation was a little bit rough, but it did achieve the first principle, as we wanted it to be available and accessible and consumable on most devices, and we certainly achieved that. And since then, we’ve had a much more aggressive and focused campaign on appropriate responsive design, and we had a major transformation of our web capability late last year, which I drove a massive piece of work which traversed a lot more than just the CSS. We looked at content, search, metadata, governance—everything.


Well, that’s fantastic. Well, I want to touch on a number of things you just raised, but first and foremost, as you’ve been iterating over this progressively widening responsive scope for the ATO, how does the ATO talk about mobile users and desktop users? Some organizations that we’ve spoken with tend to think of them as relatively distinct camps that need different kinds of content and different information. Whereas other organizations see that everyone needs the same information regardless of the size of their screen. Can you tell me a little bit about where the ATO falls along that spectrum?


We’ve had a few goes of trying to get the right approach, but essentially where we’ve landed now is we have a mobile-first approach in terms of our design for digital services—again, traversing much more than just the look and feel. But the one caveat I always put underneath that is: without compromising the desktop experience. The reason why that’s important particularly for the tax office, the ATO, is we still have about eighty percent of our traffic going through desktop. So despite some of the shifts that we’ve seen in the consumer market, where it’s almost the tipping point, where you’re seeing more of the community using mobile devices to undertake transactions even in the financial institutions and financial context, on our side of the fence it’s still about eighty percent on desktop, and there’s a very small slice of tablet usage and the rest is mobile. So, what we can’t do is ensure that we’ve got the absolute purest mobile experience because most of our cohorts are still on desktop.

Now, you could argue there’s a couple of reasons for that. One could be the complexity of the tax system. Another could be the service offering that we have or the disjointed experience—and I’m happy to talk about this in a moment, about we have an app, and how does that relate to our responsive web services that we have across our website and our portal experience, and how do the two relate? So I guess from an ATO perspective, we don’t treat those users differently, but we certainly acknowledge where most of our customers still reside.


Well, you kind of anticipated my next question, which was you mentioned apps, and I’d be really curious to understand how the responsive site sort of fits within that larger digital ecosystem. How do you think about its role relative to some of its native counterparts?


I guess, from my point of view, we’re actually questioning that right now. So, the app was introduced around about 2013, a similar time that we started introducing responsive web design to And at that time, it was very political; it was the need to show and demonstrate to our community, our citizens, that the ATO is very committed to digital, and we’re not a laggard, that we’re looking to move forward, and the app was sort of an example, a showcase, if you like. To be honest, there wasn’t much in it, and in some cases there’s still not much in it now. What we’re faced with though is exactly what you pointed out, is, well, you’ve got a mobile app, you’ve got a responsive web design, which also now starts to traverse the transactions in the portal experience, which means you can not only just look at information but transact and complete what you’d come to do at the tax office, which is lodge your tax return, play your superannuation and so forth, so what role does the app play? So we’re talking about that right now in terms of what’s the customer experience?

There’s certain features that exist and persist within the app itself, and they’re interesting. We’ve got voice authentication, which is an alternative biometric authentication to log in. There’s not too many organizations that have got that worldwide, and that offers just more of a streamlined experience in terms of logging in because of the concerns and unfortunate user experience issues with passwords and those kind of things. We’ve also got what we call deductions, which is just a way to record expenses throughout the year before you get to your tax return. They’re features that don’t necessarily persist in our other environments, but beyond that, any other service that’s available in the app you can do on our website or in our portal environment, which is responsive. So, as an organization, we’re actually just asking that question right now—and I think the challenge has been before—and I’d suggest most organizations have this particularly on a larger scale, where you have lots of big groups running projects, products, they’re not necessarily being brought together from an experience point of view, and that’s what we’re trying to tackle right now. We’re trying to look at it from an end-to-end experience point of view that says, “Well, Ethan might start on an app, but he certainly doesn’t finish there, and how does that feel for him? And what are the attributes that we should have and the things that he should expect as he starts moving through those spaces essentially on any channel?”


Tell me a little bit more about the design process you use to do that. More specifically, when you’re adopting this more holistic device-agnostic view, how do you actually start thinking about the layout, the design, the visual look and feel for this new responsive experience?


That’s a good question. So in the past, the ATO unfortunately has been guilty of probably putting forward what we think is the right design and putting forward what we think is the right product or service. We’re doing a lot less of that these days. We’re doing a lot more qualitative research to understand how users traverse the tax system today, whether it be digital, physical, or otherwise, and getting a better understanding of user needs. So, spending a lot more time in the discovery and alpha phases now, and that’s a huge part of the work that I’m doing, and also a huge investment in quantitative research.

We’ve introduced last year a small site called ATO Beta, which is available on the net, and we encourage anyone to participate, get involved, and help us shape our services. But essentially that gives us a much broader base and some very important quantitative data and sophisticated analytics to help us understand have we actually got the design right before we implement it into production.

So, a couple of things—moving into agile obviously, most organizations are doing that. We’re doing it too, slowly, but we’re getting there. But most importantly, with the quantitative aspect of our beta work, it just helps inform not so much about things like, “Did you like the color of it?” and, “Do you like the ATO?” because I’m not sure anyone really likes the tax office. But more importantly, we’re asking you to complete this task, tell us when you think that you’ve done that, and then using things like Google Analytics, Qualtrics, heat maps—a whole range of things to help us understand, “Have we got the information architecture right? Have we got the navigation right? Are people finding it as fast as we expect them to? And what things do we need to change before we make this a service to the community?” So, a huge amount of time in prototyping in alpha and beta stages, and again, a lot more understanding user needs, so that sort of qual and quant research.


Well, Karen’s gonna be sad that she wasn’t here for me to ask this question, but you mentioned content before, and as you move to this more responsive layout, tell me a little bit about the changes that you had to make to the content as you were thinking a little bit more device holistically.


As part of the transformation work that I undertook last year for, again, as I mentioned earlier, we didn’t just look at look and feel, and I must say, sometimes when you deal with business stakeholders, an executive, look and feel is probably the first thing they’re thinking of. We obviously looked at that and went, “Do we have the design right and what are the opportunities, and most importantly, what’s best practice in industry at the moment? Not in government, but what is best practice in industry?” and we applied that to some of our design thinking. And then, as I mentioned before, using qual and quant to make sure that we’ve actually got it right. But the other aspects were as equally important.

We undertook a massive amount of work to re-engineer our metadata, to look at the way that our search works, not just the way that obviously Google is finding our content, but our Google search appliance, our search engine on our website. We looked at a whole range of facets around how we manage video and how that relates to content, and we introduced what we call a content model and content governance. Because the ATO is so big, we had around about 15,000 pages and some very complex content that actually leads into legislation, so we have a very diverse user group. We have anyone from essentially what we call a self-preparer—those that lodge a tax return themselves, so just our average user—right through to legal professionals that are looking for rulings on legislation, and their requirements are very different.

What we did is—apart from just making sure that we understood how much content we had, which is an awful amount—we understood our users and the different types of complexity that they have and what they’re expecting. We started to introduce this content model, and it was all about ensuring that we could understand user needs but provide a means to transact. So, I mentioned that the ATO doesn’t just provide information and content anymore. Most of the work that we do, and what we want the community to do, is lodge and pay; that’s their commitment to supporting the tax system. So, the content was re-engineered to basically provide, no matter what topic or content, a very quick call to action, to allow people to do exactly what they came here to do, but also still provide the facility and the architecture for additional detail if you need to, but it was acknowledged that not everyone needs to see that. So we’ve been going through a complete review of—to this point, we’re still going. But at this stage, we’ve removed 5,000 pages and 3.4 million words. That hasn’t been easy because of the business stakeholders that we’ve got that have very complex tax knowledge and requirements. But again, everything is back to making sure that the content is aligned to user needs and aligns to a content model. The other benefit is that the Australian government is going through a major reform of digital services and how we look at providing services to the community, and recently the establishment of the Digital Transformation Office, which is a similar process that’s happened in the UK, is looking at tackling this issue across government. So we’re working with the DTO not just on what we’re doing, but making sure that our website, the way that we do it, our content model, our approach is consistent. So what it means is if Ethan has the chance to come to Australia, he should have a similar experience no matter if he comes to the ATO website or if he goes somewhere else. So, that’s been a lot of the content model, the content review.


Jonathon, you mentioned reviews. I’d love for you to talk a little bit more about how you actually review the work in progress with the rest of the ATO. Were you reviewing prototypes? Static designs? How did you gather feedback on the design as it was evolving?


We did it a couple of different ways. Again, we now have the opportunity with the lab concept I was talking about before, the ATO Beta, that not only provides an internal container that we can test concepts and, frankly, showcase them, but we can also do that internally. Prior to that, a lot of heavy lifting, Ethan.

What I found is providing an experienced view of what the change was going to be was the most effective way of gaining buy-in. I could sit here and talk to our exec about the need to support every user, to make sure that we have a client-facing view of our design, not something that we need but something the customer needs, what the benefits or opportunities were… but the only way I could get buy-in was actually help them understand the experience. So what we did is, certainly in our initial alpha and beta stages, was just simply take things like an iPad up to our exec, and take them to executive meetings and talk about the experience and how that experience traverses different devices. It might be a bit rudimentary, but we literally had iPads, iPhones on the table to say, “Well, this is what it feels like if you’re on one of these. This is what you can do if you’re on one of these, and this is what you can see, and this is the way it works on these different devices, and this is why it’s so important.” So that was one of the first methods that we did to obtain buy-in.

And also, I guess we had an advantage; we had some negativity in the community, there was lots of negativity around that it didn’t meet user needs, that no one liked using it. So I used that as a bit of a burning platform to get organizational support, and through doing that, we essentially got business buy-in. So, a couple of different strategies, but very much around touching and feeling and getting buy-in before this thing went live.


If there was any legal review that had to be conducted on the new responsive site, did that change since it was not just device-specific experience anymore?


Yeah, it’s interesting. So, not so much from a legal point of view around responsiveness, but certainly the content reviews. We’re a government organization. Every piece of content we have on we have to make sure is true and accurate, and we make that commitment. In doing so, we go through a rigorous technical review. The challenge I had with that obviously is it’s underpinned by legislation. So it took a while to moderate that process, and we did that by making sure that we had our designers and the technical writers involved in a process, not as sort of a waterfall process if you like, but an engaging process to make sure that, yes, it meets technical requirements, but the ultimate objective is it still meets user needs. So I didn’t actually have any legislative or legal barriers, thankfully. Certainly some miffs around where terms and conditions need to be and those kinds of things, and certainly we cracked those nuts. But no, no legal barriers, thankfully. But again, it’s by engaging our legal group early to make sure we didn’t have any issues before we went live.


That’s marvelous. I’d love to hear if performance, the actual speed of the new ATO website, was ever something that came up in the early design discussions. So, focusing a lot on layouts and aesthetics is one thing, but was the speed of the website something that ever came up?


Externally, no. But certainly as part of the technical peer reviews, I think it’s fair to say that is not necessarily as fast as it should be. We’ve undertaken quite a lot of technical work and removed a lot of technical debt over the last twelve months to try and resolve some of those issues. Some of it comes down to the content management system and the architecture that we implemented some years ago, which we’re now going through a piece of remediation, and we’re looking to move to the cloud very soon, possibly by the end of this year. As part of that review, we’re looking to try and get some opportunities to increase the speed of the site. But at this point, I must say, certainly at a business level and a strategy level, we certainly don’t have any stakeholder pressure from that point of view and it’s largely meeting the business requirements. Three years ago? Absolutely, we had some problems. But we’ve come a long way.


Well let me just ask then, with this new responsive redesign behind you, how do you actually know if it’s working? Specifically, you mentioned ATO Beta a number of times, but what kind of research or data are you actually looking at to see how successful this responsive site is?


One of the things that we do in ATO, I mentioned we do qual and quant, and that’s not just about making sure that we’ve got the product we’re about to introduce as best as can be, but it’s also making sure what we have currently available still is, and understanding where it sits. We also take things like benchmarking—so we bring the community into the ATO and get them to complete some key tasks, ranging from anything from “We expect you to try and find this piece of information, tell us when you’ve done that,” and obviously have some analytics behind that, monitoring that; some tasks based on terms of transactions, a whole range of things. So, we regularly benchmark a whole range of digital services to make sure that we know what the current state of usability is, and then identify where we have our key pain points, and then undertake an iterative program of work to resolve that. So that’s one piece.

We also undertake our CSAT, customer satisfaction survey, on a quarterly basis to understand where our digital services, whether it being the website in its entirety, app, portal, you name it, to get a sort of broad-brush perspective of what’s happening there.

And then the other thing is we have page-level feedback and also search feedback, and that’s been really useful for us to understand not just whether someone agrees or likes the content that we’ve got, but also the data that underpins that and the analytics that we’ve got also tells us where they’ve come from, which is really useful, because it tells us how effective our navigation is, how much reliance that folks have on navigation versus just using Google.

And also just introducing new technology as well. So, early this year we introduced a virtual assistant that we nicknamed Alex, but essentially it’s the first step of machine-learning, and it provides an alternative option from using navigation search. So we’re just having a very close look at that now to understand, is that actually changing the user experience dramatically? What we’re seeing so far is, from the use of the services being search, nav, all those kind of things, probably not much has changed. It seems to have almost plugged a gap that we may have had. So we’ve got a certain cohort that are finding it easier to use, but we still have the same amount of people using search and the same amount of people using traditional navigation functions. So again, a range of mechanisms to make sure that what we’ve got is right and, most importantly, still right, and then addressing those irritants as we find them.


Sounds like a fantastic process. Well Jonathon, as we come to the end of our time, I’d hate to let you go without asking this one last question, which is if someone is listening to or reading this interview and they’re about to start their own responsive redesign, do you have any advice for them that they should keep in mind as they’re starting their project?


Absolutely. And certainly, this is a reflection for the work that we have done on ATO for the last twelve months, and I’ve reflected that we’ve had a long journey to get to where we are today. If anyone’s undertaking a responsive design project or transformation piece, I’d certainly encourage it and would question why haven’t you done it already. But don’t just look at the actual experience itself from the responsive point of view, look at the connected parts of your digital ecosystem that you offer your customers, because that’ll be their experience. If you just look at one facet of your service, then it will feel fragmented and disconnected, and you may find that you invest a lot of work and not actually realize much benefit. You may find that things like your CSAT indicators and things like that don’t go up because you’re not actually addressing the underlying problem that a customer has, which is they’re probably using a range of your services, not just one. So, again, embarking on a responsive design, do it, but consider the other pieces to make sure that you can complete the full experience.


Well, I love ending an interview on some poetry. That was lovely stuff, indeed. Jonathon, I can’t thank you enough for spending a few minutes with us. This has been an invaluable chat, and I know our audience would agree. So, thank you.


Pleasure. Thank you very much.


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