Social informatics and quality management

How a good web application induces relaxed accounting and tax declarations

Today I would like to introduce you to a bird, the madge (or magpie), metaphorically speaking. A madge is in German "die Elster". Europeans attribute to this bird "thieving". Perhaps you know the opera "The Thieving Magpie" by Giacomo Rossini. In Asia the madge is a sign of good luck and Native Americans in the north regard her as a spiritual being and friend of mankind. The madge is assumed as one of the most intelligent animals - not only birds. Perhaps this encouraged the German developers of a tax declaration application to call it elster.

elster is the acronym for "Elektronische Steuererklärung", electronical tax declaration. It started in 1996 and today it is one of the best applications I ever met. This counts for both the local option and even more for the web platform elster.de


The German tax administrations of the federal government and the federal states assigned a working group to explore the prerequisites for an e-tax declaration. One year later the first  Elster-Clientsoftware was delivered to several tax-declaration vendors - both companies and federal administrations. 1999 elster was launched as official procedure for the e-transmission of income tax declarations. From 2001 on the tax administration supplied elsterformular for free to private persons, business people and tax professionals such as tax consultants - first on cd-rom, from 2005 on also as download via the internet.

Furthermore in 2005 elsteronline-portal started. Not only tax consultants but also business people and private persons are able to lodge their tax declarations. They get immediate feedback on the completeness and correctness of the declaration and expectable redemptions or payment of tax arrears.


Useful = utility + usability

Does an application provide the features you need? Utility accomplished.
Are the features easy and pleasant to use? Usability accomplished.

Learnability, efficiency, memorability, errors, satisfaction plus the willingness to recommend an application describe how high the usability of a certain application is. Jakob Nielsen  described them 1993 in his book "Usability Engineering" and 2012 in Usability 101: Introduction to Usability:

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they reestablish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

The developers of elster.de achieved this by a plain design, very good explanations and help pop-ups, very good user guidance and error notes and it is very satisfying to complete your income tax declaration in less then twenty minutes. Moreover data security and privacy show a high standard by authentications and the communication with the tax administration is "real time". And here social informatics comes into sight.

Social informatics and quality management

Social Informatics deals with the interrelationship of information- and communication technology and social change. The task of social informatics is to support the design, implementation and maintenance of information systems for the benefit of individuals, groups and society, so that those, who develop, build, sell and maintain these systems, tailor technology to people and not inverse. 

If an application shows such a high usefulness like elster.de people are able to use the work with such an application for necessary preceded processes. If you know what you have to include in a report you can accordingly design your controlling and your accounting. If once created later tax declarations are easy. The accounting works and in the future you just can fill in the data of your accounting in the tax declaration on elster.de. My personal record during the last two weeks are ten minutes for a statement on excess of receipts over expenses that is part of the income tax return.



Moreover elster.de brings people together, for instance the business woman and the tax officer. A phone call:

"Hello, my name is ... Yesterday I received an e-mail from my ex-tax-consultant soon-to-be. It was the last of several incidents with grave errors. Now I want to submit the tax declarations by myself via elster."

We talked about the errors and necessary deadline extensions. She was very relaxed and compliant: "How much time do you need?" We agreed upon twenty-four days. Twenty days later I completed the tax declarations online on elster.de. Overall five plus three statements on excess of receipts over expenses. Yes, the work of the tax consultant and his staff had been  - sorry - a mess. On the twenty-first day I delivered the written evidences at the tax office. It was a pleasure to meet the tax officer in person, who took such a load of my mind, just by radiating a sense of calm: "I just checked and saw your authenticated submissions. I will call you, if I have any questions or if we need further vouchers."

This is the social part of elster.de. Empowered private persons and business people that directly work together with governmental and other administration officers. Richard Sennett wrote a wonderful book about the benefits of cooperation: Together. The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. New Haven and London, Yale University Press 2012.


Other examples

So far I did not look how e-tax declarations work in other countries. I'm sure there are many good examples and would appreciate to learn about them. Perhaps you work already with one of them. Please let me know …

What happened during the last three weeks, took place similar in kind one year ago. Last summer the typesetter and layout designer, we contracted for the first four books of the Weidenborn Verlag, delivered so many errors and did not keep his deadlines, that we had to take it over and do it ourselves (my blogger colleague Rudi Moos told the story …). This was afforded by another very good application: TeX. I used it during my work at Aachen University. So this is another example how an application can empower people, if it is useful = utility + usability.

A third area is quality management and certification for instance in health care. If your quality management works you can do audits and an ISO-certification as a side line (Blog 02.02.2012 and Weßel 2000).

Addendum: the tax office in Frankfurt am Main communicates imho in a fine way with its staff and other people: its architecture (chapter "Räume" in Werkzeuge).


Christa Weßel - Saturday, 14 July 2018


Further readings