Braille Monitor                                      October 2016

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Participating in the American Dream Means Paying Taxes: The Innovation of Accessible Financial Tools at H&R Block

by Bret Reimer

Bret ReimerFrom the Editor: Paying taxes is not something many of us are excited about doing, but the experience is frustrating enough without the added stress of being unable to do so because of the technology used in preparing the forms that report income, deductions, and the bottom-line number that will reveal whether we pay more into the system or get some back. H&R Block is a leader in tax preparation, providing human assistance for those who wish to pay for it and computerized assistance for those who do not.

It was Mr. Reimer’s challenge to follow Jordyn Castor on the agenda, and those who have read her remarks will understand why he began his presentation by acknowledging hers. But before we get to his remarks, here is what President Riccobono said in introducing Mr. Reimer. "This is an important agenda item because getting access to the tools that are needed to file our taxes and independently manage our finances is an important topic, and over the last few years, with our work, H&R Block has come to be a model in moving accessibility within an organization. Here to talk to us about the work of H&R Block, where, over the last year, twenty-three million people have filed their taxes online, is the director of technology who leads a team of accessibility experts in changing the paradigm of accessibility and improving the tools at H&R Block. Here is Bret Reimer:

So, Jordyn, this is going to be a tough act to follow—my gosh, great story.

On behalf of H&R Block, congratulations on another successful convention and all of the outstanding work that you've done this year to make the world a more accessible place.

I personally want to thank the organizers of this conference for inviting me to speak today. This has been a tremendous personal opportunity for me to be here for the last couple of days. I've really enjoyed speaking with a few of you, listening, learning a lot. I really enjoyed going to the exhibit hall and hearing about all of the amazing innovation that's going on. I mean there is a lot of innovation going on, and it's just really exciting to be a part of that. I cannot wait to take that all back to Kansas City and bring back even more knowledge and enthusiasm to H&R Block.

This is the second year that H&R Block has been a part of this national convention. We were here last year for the world-record-breaking umbrella mosaic—that was incredible. And, as I was preparing for my speech today, it really stuck out to me about what can be achieved when you really rally around a goal, and it was just an amazing accomplishment that you all made. I really want to take that rally, that attitude towards accessibility into H&R Block, and I think we've done that over the past few years, and we're very excited to move forward with that [applause].

Now I know I work for a tax company, and I may think taxes are the most interesting thing in the world [laughter], but that's probably not what you want to hear about today. My topic today is going to be all about innovation. It's going to be about how H&R Block over the past few years has been innovating and reinventing how we deliver products to market. We have integrated web accessibility into our product-development lifecycle, and I'm going to tell you a little about the journey that we've been on the past few years, and how that's come to life at H&R Block.

Today we've only got a short time, but I'm going to give you a brief overview of the history of H&R Block, as well as what we do and then take you along that journey that we've been on the past few years.

H&R Block really started out as an innovative company from the very beginning. They were founded in 1955 when Henry Block and Richard Block had a small bookkeeping business in downtown Kansas City. One day a salesman from the Kansas City Star newspaper came to them and asked them if they ever thought about doing tax preparation for individuals. They talked about it a little bit and decided to run an ad in the Kansas City Star to offer tax preparation for $5. Literally the next day he had an office full of new clients, and they basically had invented the tax preparation industry.

You can see that we started out as a very innovative startup company back in 1955. Fast-forward all the way to today. We've done over 650 million returns; we have around 12,000 offices throughout the United States, and we typically have an office within five miles of every American. Not only do we have all of those 12,000 offices, but we also have our do-it-yourself product suite. We have software that you can buy in the retail outlets, we have an online and mobile solution that you can go online and do your taxes yourself, and that's really what we're going to focus on discussing today. We're going to talk about how we're reinventing the way that we develop those online and mobile products to build in web accessibility from the very beginning.

Our accessibility journey started a few years ago with a cooperative consent decree. Now this may seem adversarial, but the relationship between H&R Block and the NFB has truly grown into a strategic partnership over the past several years. Now there have been many people within your organization that have helped us achieve this, but there are a couple people that I want to acknowledge today: Karl Belanger and Gary Wunder have been instrumental in how we have formed our accessibility program. They have offered tremendous guidance, knowledge, and leadership over the past few years. Gary has actually helped recruit consultants from your organization that we have hired on to test and help guide us to make our products accessible. It's been a great partnership that we've formed through the past few years, so thank you Karl and Gary [applause].

Now we were really challenged with this challenge of web accessibility a few years ago, and the challenge was to make our online tax product accessible by the next tax season. This challenge seemed daunting; it really was going to take a team to rally around this idea and make it happen, and that first year was critical. What we did was we formed an accessibility program. We formed a program and a committee that not only defined process, but also acted as champions, because we needed to integrate this knowledge and this enthusiasm throughout the entire company, because it really took a team effort and a company-wide effort. That also took partnerships with a third-party web accessibility consulting firm, as well as the NFB.

There are really three areas that this committee focuses on. I think about it in terms of training awareness, the software development lifecycle or product development lifecycle, and then the strategic planning and strategic partnerships we make. We've come a long way in the past three years. Like I mentioned, the first year was daunting. We came from a very reactionary organization to a much more proactive, strategic organization in how we think about accessibility, and I'm going to walk you through that journey.

The first is around training and awareness. At the very beginning we really focused on the technical training that was required. We had an existing website that was built over several years. We have literally thousands of webpages and forms to become compliant. We really focused our training efforts on how do we remediate what we have today, and how do we test that. But we have broadened that significantly in the past three years. Now our training efforts go all the way into our marketing organizations, our graphic design, and we have moved this knowledge and education to the very beginning of our product development lifecycle to where we are thinking about web accessibility from the very beginning.

The other way that we think about training is our hands-on training. There are new industry standards, new expertise is always coming out. One that we've really seen mature in the past couple years is around mobile accessibility. Last year we sent several of our developers out to California with our consulting firm, and we did a three-day hands-on training session working with our mobile apps, and coming out of that we had many of the issues identified and many of them remediated by the time they came out of that. This was a tremendous opportunity for us to sit side-by-side with real users, understand their own client experience, and remediate those issues.

The second area is around the software development lifecycle. Like I mentioned, we brought web accessibility up to the very beginning of that lifecycle within how we design our products. We recently redesigned our tax estimator, which almost ten million people use each year to estimate their refund. We redesigned that in a way where we thought about web accessibility. We had design reviews at the very beginning. We thought about color contrast, user experience, technical requirements—all of that was done up-front. But, after we move into the development stage of the product development lifecycle, we really have to make sure that all of the developers are developing in a consistent way. We have developed over the past three years a robust knowledge base. We have developed over two hundred articles about how we develop at H&R Block. We've taken industry best practices, we've mapped those to very specific requirements for H&R Block design, and we have a robust knowledge base that each one of our developers can access.

After we have developed the product, we move into the testing phase. We not only functionally test our products now; we have to test for web accessibility. We do this in three different ways: the first one is around our automated testing. Over the past three years we've formed a really robust automated testing solution in partnership with our consulting firm. We can not only test the new products that we're developing, but we can also regression test the rest of the products we have as new industry standards and best practices come into play. The second way we test is really around leveraging assistive technology at H&R Block. We use this to walk through the client experience and validate the product. The third way we do this is like I mentioned before—we're partnering with the NFB and others; we're reaching out, and we're engaging with the user community and really trying to make an optimal user experience [applause].

The third way that our committee really reaches out is around our strategic planning and partnership. Like I mentioned, we were here last year. We've also engaged with the CSUN conference as well. We sent numerous people there last year, and these are just great opportunities to listen and hear from everyone. It's a great opportunity to understand what different vendors are doing to innovate. It's also a great opportunity for us to connect with other companies that are on their own web accessibility journey. It's an opportunity for us to hear from them, and also let them know what we are doing within our organization.

In conclusion, we have made tremendous progress over the past three years, but we are not done. This is something that is not start and stop. This is something that has to be integrated into the culture and all of the processes you have within product development. We look forward to continuing to improve on our products. Once again, on behalf of H&R Block, thank you for inviting me to speak today. It's been a pleasure [applause]. Thank you.

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