How we built the FreeAgent Furlough Calculator in a week

Posted by on May 28, 2020

In light of the Coronavirus events, the UK Government put in place a few measures to help businesses during those uncertain times.

At FreeAgent, we quickly adapt to help businesses during this crisis. Our goal is to keep you up-to-date with the government support available.

HMRC’s Job Retention Scheme Announcement – allowing employers to furlough employees and claim 80% of their wages plus any National Insurance and pension contributions – definitely caught our attention.

After an email from HMRC about how the claim calculator may work, followed up by a phone call to get more information, we, the Tax Team at FreeAgent, decided to tackle the work. This was a great opportunity for us to help our customers relax about tax. There was one caveat though: We only had a week to do the work! So, how did we do it? Let’s find out!

Our process 👩🏻‍🍳 [app]

1. Communication 🎤

When you’re building a feature in one week, communication is key. The first thing we did was create a Slack channel for our calculator team and add everyone who is interested and can provide valuable input in it. Slack is a great empowering tool, that gives us the opportunity to build a conversation and find answers much more quickly than email.

2. Build as we discover 🕵🏻‍♀️

So what was the most helpful solution that we could build in a week? We made a decision to integrate a claim calculator into our existing payroll system, and for businesses not using our payroll – build a separate calculator on our website.

We started with skeletons of our engineering work even as the designs were being built, so that we could “hit the ground running” when the final version was ready. From there, we took an iterative approach, responding to change as each question we had found an answer.

3. Focus on quality 

Testing is crucial to a great product. We use software to test our products but we know the importance of having real people involved in the process. We go through several stages of what we call PPT – Pre-Production Testing. This is a priority for us and the domain experts on our team made extra effort to be available and have this completed on time for the release on the following Monday.

Great! We are ready to deliver! 🌊🏄🏻‍♀️

Or are we? It was Friday, 5:30pm and we were all set to deliver, celebrating with a couple of beers, until an hour later HMRC announced some changes in the claim calculations.

We weren’t going to let this news take us down. After a well-deserved weekend, we tackled the work again early on Monday, implemented the changes, tested it all again and: Voila! Our claim calculator was ready.

Our process 👩🏻‍🍳 [website]

We initially saw an opportunity for the app but quickly realised that we could translate that to the website at the same time. So we had two different calculator projects going on in tandem.

1. Communication 🎤

For anything on our website, we typically need to engage more than one team to produce new content. In this case, we on the Website team needed to engage with Tax Engineering to provide the calculations we needed to build, three teams from our Comms department to write/design/promote this calculator, as well as our Support team to make sure it had all come together accurately and clearly. 

With so many stakeholders and supporting teams, it was key for us to make our work as visible and transparent as possible. We already had a channel for our COVID-19 communications, so used that to post any updates, questions and solicit feedback, which we would cross-post to the in-app calculator channel when relevant.

Another key part of smooth communication was having one person to coordinate support in their team where we needed multiple folks to help out. We have large Comms and Support teams who have different remits and expertise, but by leaving it to the designated representative of each of those teams to organise, we reduce the amount of distractions for the folks producing the calculator in our public communications channels (eg Slack).

Finally, we’d prioritised any work to support our users during COVID-19 above everything else, and had already made some decisions to deprioritise previously planned work. This meant everyone involved had the same priority and level of investment to get this out, which is not always easy to get with cross-team projects like this.

2. Build as we discover 🕵🏻‍♀️

The kicker for the website is that we found out about that impact on our product a few days after the Tax Engineering team. We started building in earnest on a Wednesday to have a live calculator for the same deadline – the next Monday. Usually we take about two weeks to turn around simpler calculators!

We try to follow patterns as much as possible on our website, so we had the bones of the design ready to go, which meant our Website engineers could dive straight in and have half of the calculator working by the end of that first day.

We had a designer and copywriter refining the calculator UI as the engineer improved the backend with feedback from Tax Engineering as they got further in the in-app calculator.

In order to keep the development going smoothly, we had short check-ins with key stakeholders (the folks producing the calculator plus supporting team representatives) 2-3 times per day until it went live to address questions, adjust the scope (we originally tried to tackle weekly payroll AND monthly – way too complicated for the timeframe!) and line up any additional support required.

3. Focus on quality 

The most important aspect of this project for the website calculator was certainly delivery. If we went live even a few days later, we might have completely missed the peak of users needing this kind of help. 

Despite that, there’s no point in putting out a calculator if it’s not providing correct calculations and/or isn’t easy to understand. This is where our Superhero Support team came in.

When we were about 24 hours from having a fully functional calculator, the Website team got our Support rep to line up as many folks as they could spare to cast their knowledgeable eyeballs upon our calculator. Because we were working so quickly, we had to have them on standby, but keeping that rep in the loop through our check-ins and frequently Slack messages meant there was no hold up when we were ready for them to test. Their input led to updates to our copy and well as additional verification of our calculations.

Like our Tax Engineering team, we also faced last-minute updates to our calculator which required additional engineering work and testing… but we still managed to go live on Monday, 20th April 🎉 ! 

Responding to feedback

Even when you’re producing quickly, you’ve got to keep an eye on what users are saying. We had no time for user testing before going live, but we reacted quickly to comments we received afterwards. Over the first few days, we got some feedback that users didn’t understand how we were calculating and the way we determined the pay period. We quickly made changes to the copy and tweaked how the calculator worked to help clarify how we made calculations, which seemed to do the trick.

We had two projects being completed by two teams, with several more supporting closely on both to get them out on time and promoted well. We couldn’t have done all of this without excellent communication and collaboration.

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About the author…

Kevin is the Engineering Manager of the Tax Engineering team at FreeAgent. in his old days, you would see Kevin turning on his head and doing backflips as he used to be a breakdancer. If you are lucky you can still see him doing some moves from time to time.

See all posts by Kevin

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