Tom Chi  

Error 1040- Timed Out

April 16th, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

Now if there is any government agency which needs to hire usability people, it’s got to be the I.R.S. According to this Associated Press article, it takes “28 hours and 30 minutes to complete an average tax return with itemized deductions and income reported from interest, dividends and capital gains.” Sheesh… that’s got to be the worst time on task I’ve ever heard of. The I.R.S. would do well to learn from online e-tailers like Amazon: first off, when taking someone’s money, please make it ‘one-click’ easy! Heck, if they structure it right, we might end up wanting to add just a couple more taxes to our ledgers so we can get free shipping (or filing, rather).As it stands, filling out tax forms and understanding the tax code is pretty similar to trying to understand someone else’s source code. Unfortunately, the people who wrote this code are quite fond of meaningless variable names, hidden dependencies, and spaghetti-like GOTOs. The whole thing reads like something which has undergone decades of random adjustments and ‘bug fixes’ and is certainly the sort of thing you’d never wish upon any developer, much less a regular Joe.

Especially frustrating are the situations where you need to do two long calculation branches just to discard one of them. This is the exact sort of problem that a small team of usability engineers could solve. I bet in under two years a team of five could clarify the forms so as to significantly reduce the number of incorrectly filed returns — all of which would lead to increases in tax revenue that would easily pay for the effort. I am also struck by the overall accessibility of the forms. Most of the 1040 looks to be between 4 and 6 point, and if your handwriting is larger than 6 point, you’re going to have some trouble writing in the boxes provided. The sheer visual density of the layout is enough to make Tufte faint, with each line item favoring brevity over clarity… and despite all the ‘data’ presented, there are few valuable item comparisons or big-picture conclusions that can be drawn.

The net result of not having our tax forms ‘usability approved’ is that more people are turning to tax preparation software. There is quite an array to choose from, as well as a plethora of mini packages for special tax situations. Altogether the software can definitely help to prevent math errors (the most common flaw in faulty tax returns), but still have a ways to go with regards to instilling confidence that everything is O.K. The software I used featured extremely long multi-step wizards, and there were several occasions where I lost my place when checking on a previous figures. In contrast, Kevin has said that TurboTax on the Web is “my favourite web app of all time”. I’m not sure if he was kidding.

How have the rest of you made out this tax season? What would you like to see in terms of usability improvements to the tax process or to tax software?

5 Responses to “Error 1040- Timed Out”
Dan Moore wrote:

It’s always easy to pick on the IRS. After all, who likes giving up a substantial portion of their income every Apr 15? But I have to say that the complexity of the forms is due in large part to the myriad, ever-shifting tax laws that Congress charges the IRS to enforce. If the requirements are constantly changing, it’s a scrambled just to implement them, let alone make the product easy to use.

Tom Chi wrote:

You’re right of course. The I.R.S. was set up as a collections agency, with no expertise in usability or design. Add to this the ever-changing requirements base provided by the Congress, and you get tax forms and a tax code that no one understands.

I guess the point of the essay was that this is a situation which is ripe for a couple usability engineers to step in and create enormous improvements that will help the entire country.

I see government legislation as benefitting the public in two ways: via spending and via taxes. If they like a group, they will spend more on them, or reduce their taxes. Tax law has become extremely complex because politicians want to help their friends in ways that don’t seem like a conflict of interest. The issue is not so much wanting to help people through tax cuts, it’s the desire to hide this practice which makes things complicated over time.

My hope is for the creation of a non-partisan political site that simply posts the bills that are on the table in their full glory. Make the entire transaction transparent, and publish all voting records so that every politician stays accountable for what they support. Oh… and outlaw riders.

Certainly, such an online project is within the capability of current technology. We just need to find a collection of people who are passionate about making that data accessible in a non-partisan way. Then we’ll have the ground work for all sorts of changes, including simplifying tax law.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

I have been using Turbo Tax for the Web for three or four years straight now and it has consistently been the most polished web app I’ve seen. It’s starting to look a little dated but its effective use of validation, availability of multiple forms of help, ability to track your progress and inform you of where you are and where you’re going all come together to form a really nice package for me. I’ve heard the experience is less pleasant with the regular Turbo Tax but I have no experience with that.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I live in the UK and last year used TaxCalc for the first time. (It’s a bog-standard PC app, rather than web app.) It was as painless as the process could be, I think - it had a wizard view and a WYSIWYG form view (you could switch between them at any time, or even have both at once).

The nicest thing was being able to submit directly into the Inland Revenue computers i.e. not via email. A colleague of mine has done this successfully at a few minutes to midnight before the deadline, which was impressive.

Submitting electronically reduces the number of places where manual error can creep in (I can still do it, but no-one else), and I got my tax refund within 2 weeks.

Also, if I repeat the process for my next tax return I can carry forward all the boring details from my previous return e.g. address and tax reference.

Sorry, this isn’t meant to be an advert! It was a reasonably usable bit of software for a stressful application, which is a rare thing.

Bob Salmon wrote:

I think the worst experience I’ve had with U.S. taxation is adapting our telecoms billing software to work in the U.S. A single phone call can attract up to 20 taxes, and there are 70,000 different tax raising bodies to choose from. It’s so bad that there are specialist tax calculation packages by people like Vertex - hmmmm, interesting job. Oh, by the way, it’s written in compile-it-yourself COBOL.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?