‘Tis the (Tax) Season

If you're in the US, there's a good chance you have April 15th on your mental calendar, if not circled on your desk calendar with a bold, red sharpie. It's the due date for individuals to file their tax returns, and while about 60% of us file well ahead of time, the rest have a fair propensity to procrastinate a bit and file within the two weeks leading up to the deadline. There's good reason for this procrastination — no one likes paying taxes.

Last week, our landlords friends upstairs at Tax Analysts (great tagline: "Respectfully Disagreeable Since 1970") asked us to take a look at the website at the center of this early-spring anti-holiday, IRS.gov. While they were looking for input around functionality and a bit of visual design, we noticed some interesting things that we thought were worth covering here.

The Bad

First of all, let's just get this out of the way: IRS.gov is a visual disaster. The layout is poor, the typography is messy, there's almost no effective use of white space. The home page looks like someone kept talking about the fold. That much we know, so let's get over it.

Under the hood, it looks like someone was making an attempt when it came to markup, but failed in the end. Tables for layout, loads of style attributes throughout the markup, and the occasional alt-text that doesn't reflect the exact text in the image make this a great example of bad markup that may still be 508-compliant enough to pass muster.

There are other bad cases throughout the site. If you're a resident or non-resident alien, this guide may be the worst possible way to convey complicated tax information to an audience that will largely fall on the novice side of the scale.

The biggest sin, in my view, is the fact that they've failed to configure their web server to respond to irs.gov, without the www prefix. An inexperienced user going straight to irs.gov may assume the site is down, rather than realizing that the agency was just too lazy to properly configure its domain, especially since www is deprecated.

The Not-So-Bad

But really, the site has a lot of good things going on. The navigation seems lame at first, focusing on audience groups like the failed navigation on usa.gov, but it's very appropriate here. Imagine a novice asking a random expert how to file taxes. The obvious response might be a question: "well, is this for you, or a business?" The navigation reflects this, and provides reasonable portals to relevant content from each audience-centric page.

The home page has some solid content. Prominently-displayed on the home page are links to common forms (1040s are obvious, but number one is the 4868 form to request an extension: convenient!), and links to online services you're likely to take interest in. There's a big feature block that seems to have relevant info for the last-minute filer more often than not, and the lower right has a reasonably prominent link to find the mailing address if you're filing old-school.

Finally, they put at least a little effort into search. If you're stumbling on this year's new question about last year's stimulus payment, you might search IRS.gov for something like "stimulus payment." The results page not only has links to reasonable results, including a page to help you figure out the answer to the question. They also provide some editorially-chosen results at the top, in this case a page that gives a broad overview on the stimulus package. In all, you've got a good chance to find what you need via search.

The US tax code is a mess of words more closely resembling spaghetti. It's a tough job to effectively communicate everything involved, but the IRS.gov team has done a better job than most other government agencies.

Biases in Effect

The person we were speaking with at Tax Analysts mentioned that everyone they'd talked to thus far had told them that IRS.gov was an awful site that didn't meet expectations. After our analysis, including what you've read above, we thought there were a fair number of redeeming qualities to the site, so the fact that everyone else was hating on it was curious.

Then we realized that the worst job in web design is likely being the designer for IRS.gov. Why? A simple matter of cognitive bias. We encounter cognitive bias issues, where a cognitive process skews the decision of a user, all the time when working with clients. We'll use biases to our advantage at times, and steer clear of them at other times when possible.

In this case, we run up against some pretty strong cognitive dissonance: people almost universally hate the IRS. No one likes paying taxes, and the complexity of the process (as determined by Congress, not necessarily the IRS) is frustrating to everyone except Certified Public Accountants.

So when a taxpayer is at that dreadful time of year, filing tax returns, finding out that freelance gig comes at a high price in April, or wondering why her employer's automatic withholdings didn't cover the load this year, it's going to be incredibly difficult for that user to say that IRS.gov is anything other than Beelzebub's homepage. Any slight flaw becomes an enormous headache and a source of angst and confusion.

In order for taxpayers to like it, the IRS website would not only need to be perfect in almost every way, but it'd require an act of Congress to make the process easy enough for mere mortals. In other words, something would have to freeze over. Happy Easter/Passover :)

M. Jackson Wilkinson

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Posted in Article Category: #Design & Content
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