What connects Benjamin Franklin, sexy looks and sprinting for two weeks? Allow me to explain...
Early last year the internal development team - of which I am a part - was asked to build a tool that would help advisers calculate capital gains on their clients’ general accounts. It was Ben Franklin who uttered the famous quote: "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” It made me wonder if a third certainty should be added to that list; that folk will need help calculating those taxes!
Although a current off-the-shelf tool existed on our platform, it was very basic and limited in both its functions and outputs. We just had to build something better. Seems straightforward enough, right?
Not quite. A project like this, involving the replacement of a product that’s been in use for a long time, can present many challenges.
The development risks
Firstly, and most importantly, is the need for calculations to be accurate. What use is a calculator if you can’t trust its sums? Crafting these calculations to take into account the myriad of capital gains tax (CGT) regulations, as well as transactional data dating back over a decade, was daunting to say the least.
To make sure we got these right, we decided to use a broad base of continuous early testing. We also hired highly respected capital gains specialist Rebecca Cave to ensure we got the fundamentals spot on.
There will always be potential issues to overcome - a calculator is only as good as the data being fed into it after all. But after months of spreadsheet-crunching and formula-forming, we felt we’d cracked this crucial component. The calculations ‘engine’ we developed took care of lovely legislative kinks like matching (both same-day and 30-day) and the treatment of distributions, as well as all the standard stuff Mr Taxman would expect.
The second challenge was about making sure we built a tool advisers would actually find useful. As unlikely as it sounds, financial firms have been known to plough on with building things that ultimately, users don't like and/or use, normally at huge expense and over long timeframes.
To help avoid this we went on the road, meeting many advisers face-to-face to find out their views on what would be useful to them and their businesses. We also canvassed opinion via telephone interviews, via feedback through our client relations and sales teams and at our bi-annual user sessions. These are where we meet lots of our administrator and paraplanner users - often the folk who end up using the tools the most - and got a load of fantastic guidance on what would work, and what wouldn’t. Based on this feedback, we designed the most requested features, which include:
- Client-level reporting
- Multiple clients within one report
- CSV and PDF report formats
- Full capital gains transaction histories
- Ability to rebase acquisition costs, for example, for deaths
- Ability to mark switches as ‘not liable’ for capital gains
- Ability to override unit prices
- Acquisition costs tracked across accounts when transferred
- Transfer-out acquisition costs supplied as standard
Design and build
Armed with the research we needed, we encountered the third big challenge of the project: making capital gains sexy! Surely the most impossible task of all, I hear you mutter. Perhaps. In the interest of sticking to realistic targets, we brought this down a couple of notches to "make capital gains tools easier to use, and easier on the eye."
We set to work testing out various designs of the user interface to try and improve the overall experience of staring at a calculator’s numbers 'n' stuff. After lots of prototyping, it became clear we should also ‘front-load’ our tool with a bunch of commonly requested figures as soon as it clicked on. This would reduce the number of subsequent clicks required to get at information, and simplify the process of producing reports.
We also gave the tool a clean branding look, with more room between rows and columns and less blocky lines. It began to take (a much sexier) shape:
For the build process, our in-house teams used a development system called Agile. For the uninitiated, development tasks are broken down into bite-size chunks of work, with each chunk roughly representing between a day to five days’ worth of work for one developer. Everyone aims to complete a few tasks like this within a two-week period known as a sprint. At the end of each sprint, any tasks not completed are carried over to the next.
This incremental development process works well as there is constant dialogue between the analysts, developers and testers. Problems are spotted early, fixes are done quickly, and work is completed on an ongoing basis, so that there are regular accomplishments, both big and small.
Alongside this, we had some of our adviser users test the stuff being built; we were receiving constant validation that what was being produced was what they wanted. This can’t be underestimated for making the product as good as it can be, and I know it was massively appreciated by all involved.
Once the initial build and extensive testing was complete, it was time to name our sexy calculator-slash-tool. This part of any new development can be choppy, as opinions fly and (often daft) suggestions spew forth from all sides. Eventually, it was decided the new tool would be named Narrate CG, making it the first of many planned extensions to our market-leading reporting suite Narrate.
Ok, this is maybe akin to christening your child the same name as you (not that there's anything wrong with that), but it made a lot of sense – Narrate is already a hugely successful brand, and extending its features creates value.
For launch, we decided to repeat the method we used with Narrate, with an 'alpha' then 'beta' launch. This meant we could log and fix issues sent to us by live users very quickly, prior to full launch and removal of the old tool. We began the alpha launch in December, allowing a small number of users access, before switching to beta for all our users from 8 January.
And that’s how we got here! It’s been a year in the making, and everyone here in the team is very proud of what we've achieved. We hope advisers are enjoying using Narrate CG as well. The feedback received so far and the usage numbers are all really promising, and bode well for our plans this year to expand the tool’s capability into things like ‘what if I sell/switch’ and scenario and optimisation planning.
These are far more complex developments, with a change in perspective to ‘what might happen’ as opposed to ‘what has happened’. As a result, they present quite a different challenge in building. There are only a couple of existing tools like this in the adviser platform marketplace, so to deliver on this will hopefully please those advisers that use us and those that are thinking of doing so.
As always, we'll be involving advisers throughout the next stage of the development process. You could say it brings to mind another of old Benny Franklin’s quotes: "Wise men don’t need advice. Fools won’t take it." Or was that BA Baracus in the A-Team? Still stands either way.
Get to grips with our new Narrate CG tool with this quick introduction video.