Taxing good sense: breaking old habits in forms

I must apologise for the relatively few new articles which I have been able to post over the last week or so. This is due to a seasonal congruence of my sick father, annual tax returns, quarterly VAT returns, and the deadline for my next section in MacFormat magazine. We still battle with the first of those, but the second and third are now out of the way, and the last well in hand.

It was when completing our annual tax returns that I had one of those recurrent strange sensations.

Others living under the UK tax jurisdiction will be familiar with this time of year, when smug friends wink and let you know that theirs were filed weeks ago, and you are still frantically rummaging for the important bits of paper. If you haven’t filed electronically (the paper-based deadline was months ago) by the first of February, you get hit with an automatic penalty, daily interest on any tax due, and the opprobrium that only tax collectors can deliver.

For many years, I have used a third-party product called Ftax, which takes the official paper version, casts it into an Adobe Acrobat form, and does all the messy calculations (like 23/117ths, in the way that only tax legislation could decree) for you. It is relatively cheap, files the return automatically, and only suffers the usual quirks that such Acrobat forms have. But every year, every time that I use it, I keep thinking how weird it is: Acrobat for filing your tax return is like sandpaper for cleaning your teeth.

When Adobe Acrobat was first launched in 1993, it was one of a small group of document readers intended to replicate the way that a document would look in print. Competitors like Replica fell by the wayside as Acrobat’s Portable Document Format steadily became the best way to fix a document in typography, layout, and design. Acrobat was less about content than format.

Adobe recognised the importance of making PDF – and Acrobat as a result – cross-platform, and providing a free cut-down Reader app, so that almost any computer user could open PDF documents, even if creating them yourself was a different story. And until OS X came along, with its use of PDF as an intermediate format for printing, Mac users could often be caught using paid-for Adobe Distiller to turn incomprehensible raw Postscript output into PDF.

Unless you are obsessed with type and design, tax returns are not about layout, format, or appearance, but just numbers and important snippets of information. Yet here we are, a couple of decades later, still using inefficient and slightly wobbly (in parts) PDFs to enter and submit that handful of data.

At least the forms look just like they used to.


Why, though? Why go to all these lengths and inefficiencies to replicate what we used to do on paper? Why, when I go to enter my VAT (sales tax) figures using a purely live online form does that still look like the old, outmoded sheets of paper which I used to put in the post every three months?

Our Macs, iPhones, etc., now use fonts which are purposely designed for the flat screen displays on which we view them, rather than attempts to mimic those which are used in print production. Isn’t it about time that our electronic forms forgot the concept of pages, and were properly designed for computer use, and not print?