Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

German taxes and Elster II

with 4 comments

Yesterday, I was forced* to spend several hours in one of my least favorite ways: Doing my taxes and using Elster, one of the most horrible web interfaces I have ever encountered. It is quite clear that the makers know nothing of good usability and standard UI paradigms, that they are not well versed with writing web applications, and that they have very little common sense. The amateurishness is absurdly, ridiculously large.

*Due to deadlines at years end. Of course, I could have done this earlier and kept New Year’s Eve free for more pleasant things, but my self-discipline during vacations is lousy—and I would still have had to do the same amount of work.

To look at some specific examples of problems (in addition to an overall extremely poorly thought-through and unintuitive interface and problems already discussed in the linked-to post):

  1. There is no good way to add a free-text explanation to a form*—despite this very often being needed. The main way** is to use a separate message form, which then is tautologically not connected to the original form. This message form can contain a text of some 14, 15 thousand (!) characters—more than enough for any reasonable purpose, one would think. Unfortunately, this text has to be entered in a window of a mere three (!) lines, making the use of an external editor a virtual necessity for any non-trivial text.*** Worse: The text must not contain any line-breaks—an entirely arbitrary and indefensible restriction. Consider the absurdity: I can enter a message that is longer than most of my blog posts, but I am not allowed to enter a line-break anywhere in that message… In doubt, this amounts to the German IRS**** shooting it self in the foot: Good luck with the reading… Almost needless to say, there was no mention of this restriction in advance; it only became apparent when I pasted the completed text—which I then had to modify accordingly.

    *To be understood as the virtual equivalent of a paper form—not e.g. a form in the technical sense of HTML.

    **There is some way to add an additional message to at least some forms; however, this option is only displayed at the very end of the submit process and, to my recollection, requires an MS-Word and/or PDF document. It cannot be added during the actual input processes, it requires considerably more effort than a normal text field, and there is no information given in advance that/whether it will be there.

    ***I very strongly encourage the use of external editors anyway, but the choice should be made by the individual—not the IRS.

    ****For the sake of brevity, I will use “IRS” through-out. This, however, is not an official translation, and the corresponding Germany entities are not perfect analogies of the U.S. IRS.

  2. The button, or more accurately looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element, “Prüfen” (“Check”) should reasonably check the form for inputs, consistency, whatnot, and then return the user to editing the form. It does not… Well, it does do the checks, but it then displays one single button, almost irresistibly hard not to click on before reading it, which leads to a “send” action—something that would release the form for the enjoyment of the IRS and likely cause a number of problems for the user, if he was not actually finished*.

    *For obvious reasons, I have not tried this. It is possible that a renewed submit/send would be possible after amendments; it is possible that it would not be. However, even if the former, there will be more effort involved, and chances are that having multiple submits would over-tax the low-competence IRS.

    No, to resume editing, the user has to go into the line of looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action elements and click on the element that amounts to “edit”.

  3. In stark contrast, the looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element “Speichern und Formular verlassen” (“Save and leave form”) does not actually do this, instead presenting the user with three different options—one of which leaves the form without saving… One of the other two allows to continue with editing (the option that should have been, but was not, present for “Prüfen”!); while the third actually does what the original element purported to do: Saves the form and leaves it.

    Interestingly, there is no indication whether the element form continuing the edit saves the document or or continues without saving. However, I do note that there is no separate looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element for the obviously needed action of just saving the form and continuing in one step—despite this being one of the most common actions that a user would reasonably take. (Yes, there are dim-wits who spend two hours editing an MS-Word document between each save; no, this is not how a wise computer users works. Saves should be frequent; ergo, they should be easy to do with a single action.)

  4. Yet another unexpectedly behaving looks-like-a-tab-but-leads-to-an-action element is “Versenden” (“Send”; however, I am not certain that I got the exact German name): This does not send the form; it leads to a check-your-data page with a real send button on it.

    By all means, the step of checking the data is quite sensible. But: Why is the element not called the equivalent of “Check your data and send”? (Contrast this with the previous item, which uses that type of longer name and then fails to perform that action… All in all, the approach to naming elements looks like a game of “pin the donkey” gone wrong.)

  5. The page is so misdesigned* that an important navigation bar on the left only becomes completely visible at 50 (!) % zoom, while being undetectable at 100 % zoom and workable to some approximation at 80 %.

    *Individual experiences could possibly vary based on the browser used. I used TorBrowser 7.0.10, which is an anonymity-hardened version of Mozilla Firefox 52.5.0—a recent long-term-release version of the second most popular browser on the planet: If a web page does not work with a browser like that, something is horribly wrong with the implementation and/or quality assurance of the page.

Believe it or not: This years version, following a re-vamp, was a major improvement over last year’s—despite still being an absolute horror.

To boot, there are a number of problems not (necessarily) related directly to Elster, but to the original conceptions of the old paper forms, the incompetence of the IRS, and/or the overly complicated German tax system. For instance, the main form (“Mantelbogen”) for the tax declaration, needed by everyone, contains a number of pages that apply to only small minorities, e.g. those who have cared for an invalid in their respective homes. In contrast, the “N” form, which is used by all regular employees (i.e. likely an outright majority; definitely a majority among those pre-retirement) is a separate form. Now, I have no objections to the latter, seeing that not everyone* uses the “N” form; however, why not do the same to considerably rarer special cases? Note that while those who do not fall into these special cases can (and should!) simply forego filling these sections out, they still have to read through them in order to verify that nothing has been missed. For instance, the forms require the addition of a number of data items that the IRS already knows (or should know, if they did their job properly), e.g. the total salary paid, the tax-on-salary paid, the amount of unemployment insurance paid, … Requesting this information again not only puts an unnecessary burden on the tax payer, it also introduces a considerable risk of even more unnecessary errors. For instance, even among the forms themselves, there are redundancies (and additional risks of unnecessary errors). In my case, I have to enter information about various VAT amounts in both the VAT declaration and the EÜR (which calculates the taxable earnings); afterwards, I have to copy the taxable earnings from form EÜR into form S by hand. This is not only a potential source of errors, it also implies that I cannot complete the almost independent forms in any order I chose, possibly even get the comparatively short form S out of the way immediately after the year’s end and turn my attentions to the more complex EÜR when I have a bit of vacation.

The whole system is a complete disaster, and I re-iterate what I wrote in the linked-to post: If the tax system and the available tools are so complex/unsuitable/whatnot as they are, then the government should be obligated to pay for “Steuerberater” for all tax payers.

*This includes me for the year 2016 (and 2017). Those self-employed need the “S” form (and the “EÜR” form; and the form for VAT, whatever it is called). Those who, like me in 2015, switch from regular to self-employment during the year need to fill out forms for both cases: N, S, EÜR, the form for VAT—and, naturally, all applicable common forms like the “Mantelbogen” and “Vorsorgeaufwand”.

As a funny/tragic aside:
There appears to have been a modification in how numbers are handled compared to my description in the linked-to post. Back then, I complained that an entry like “123” into a field requiring decimal places was not considered the same as “123,00”, instead resulting in an error message. This time I had the absurd problem that input like “123.45” (copied from a calculator that, naturally, uses a decimal point; whereas German forms use a decimal comma) were automatically turned into “123.45,00”—and then followed by a new error message that no points where allowed. What the hell?!? Firstly, adding the “,00” outright is sub-optimal; it would be better to keep the original value and note that “123,00” is mathematically equivalent to “123”. Secondly, checks for errors should be made before* doing any modifications; if not, there is no telling what the end result is. Thirdly, any modification should be done in a sound manner and the values “123,45” and “123.45,00” simply are not sound—assuming the German system, it would have to either be “12.345” respectively “12.345,00” or a pre-modification rejection. To boot, although more of a nice-to-have, there should be some setting where the user can determine his preference for the semantic of “.” and “,”. This would certainly have saved me a number of edits (and another possible source of errors) of values I rightfully should have been able to copy-and-paste. However, I would not necessarily recommend that the software be changed to allow the use of “thousand separators”—counting them as an error is a potential annoyance; however, it also allows an additional consistency check to prevent the dangerous misinterpretations of “international” numbers.**

*Depending on the exact circumstance, it can be very wise to check afterwards too; however, the “before” check is more critical, because it corresponds to what the user has actually entered. He needs to be given feedback to his own errors and any error remaining to be caught during the “after” check would be the result of errors made by the program.

**Many years ago, I entered something like “16.45” in my online banking, intending to transfer a small amount to pay a bill—and this was automatically turned into either “16.450,00” or “1.645,00”… Fortunately, I caught this change before the final submit. A no-periods-allowed check would have been quite welcome here (as would a does-the-value-make-sense check: “16.45” does not make sense as an input in the German system; just like “16,45” does not make sense in the U.S. system.

Written by michaeleriksson

January 1, 2018 at 10:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , ,

4 Responses

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  1. […] experiences demonstrated further problems with the inexcusable Elster interface (also see e.g. [2], [3], [4], […]

  2. […] Today is one of those days: I had cleared almost every task of my schedule in order to dedicate myself to the tax declaration for 2017—after having postponed it again and again for the last two weeks and knowing that it would likely leave me in too poor a mood to risk anything else that could aggravate me. (Cf. a number of earlier texts, e.g. [1].) […]

  3. […] far as I can tell (without making a detailed check) all the old problems remain (cf. e.g. [1], [2]). This includes the inability to edit multiple forms in parallel and the arbitrary number-format […]

  4. […] broke the apparently preferred-by-the-IRS workflow of check-and-send-from-the-results-page. (Cf. an older text for these […]

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