What the IRS taught me about user experience

Way back in 2014, I screwed up my taxes. I filed too early and had to amend them when new information came in. I actually screwed up the refile, too, but since it was a math error, it was caught and corrected automatically. But then some more paperwork came in and I apparently ignored or forgot about it. The paperwork happened to be related to a change in a retirement account that resulted in a tax obligation.

In the summer of 2016, the IRS figured it out and sent me a letter letting me know I owed a not-insignificant sum of money. I sent a reply letter letting them know they incorrectly removed a credit, but that I otherwise agreed to it. So we settled on a number and I mailed them a check.

You do want me to pay you, right?

I want to be clear: the story I tell in this post is of my own making. Had I not screwed my return up in the first place, there would be nothing to say. However, once I started down this path, the user experience added unnecessary delay and frustration.

It started when I mailed the “yes, I agree” form and a check for the full amount due. “This is important mail,” I said to myself, “I should send it Certified Mail.” Normally, that makes sense; you get tracking, signature on delivery, etc. But in this case, it means that someone from the IRS had to go sign for the envelope instead of just getting it with the rest of the mail. As a result, three weeks after I had mailed the check, the IRS still had no record of having received it.

(As an aside, this become further frustrating when the post office failed to scan the envelope, so the tracking information never explicitly said it was picked up. Don’t send Certified Mail to a P.O. Box, kids.)

Since the due date was nearly upon me and the IRS couldn’t say that they had received it, I decided to put a stop payment order on the check. I submitted the payment online. A week or so later, I received a check from the IRS in the amount of my payment. When making the payment, I selected “Civil Penalty”. The “you owe us money” letter was form “CP2000”, so it would make sense that the “CP” stands for “Civil Penalty”, right?

So I call the IRS again and they say “no you should have selected payment to your 1040.” I return the check with instructions to apply it correctly. Another month or so goes by and I get another check, this time for a much smaller amount. For some reason, they adjusted my payment due again. This time, the amount was lower. Last week I called yet again and verified that I was all sorted out and everything was in order.

Taxes are serious business. Failure to pay is generally frowned upon. Even when you owe due to an honest mistake, it’s a very stressful situation. Getting the runaround only makes it worse. I would expect that most people in a similar situation are there for the first time. The bureaucracy of the IRS is overwhelming, and a lack of clear instructions makes it worse.

Don’t be like the IRS

So why do I tell this story? When designing a product or process, or when documenting it, think about how a nervous first-time user would approach it. If the IRS form had said “if you mail us a check, don’t send it Certified Mail”, that would have shortened the time to resolve this by three months. Similarly, online payment instructions more detailed than “go to this page (which is the same page for a variety of payments)” would have helped.

The IRS has different departments and whatnot for reasons that (probably) make sense internally. I don’t care about them. Similarly, your users don’t care about what makes sense to your organization; they care about what makes sense to them. Presenting a variety of options that don’t make sense to the uninitiated doesn’t help. If you don’t have a monopoly on your market, it will probably mean your customers go elsewhere.

The UX of a microwave

I’m not a UX expert except in the sense that I have experience using things. Still, I spend a lot of time at work serving as a proxy for users in design discussions. It’s hard to get UX right, even on relatively simple experiences like a microwave oven.

Years ago, my systems analysis professor got on a tangent about user interactions. He pointed out that it can be faster to enter a minute on a microwave as 60 seconds instead of one minute, that 111 seconds is faster to enter than 110. Design choices (including the design of instructions and documentation) that seem obviously correct are sometimes incorrect for non-obvious reasons.

It took a little while, but I eventually discovered that the “Quick Set” menu doesn’t have pre-programmed settings, it just adds a zero to whatever code is entered. So the quick set to cook two slices of bacon (20) simply sets the time to 2:00. In that sense, it functions less as a shortcut and more as a list of cook times.

On a whim today, I tried to warm a cup of coffee by using a quick set code of 6 instead of 10. It didn’t work. Apparently the microwave requires quick set codes to be exactly two digits. For a one-minute cook time, the quick set is hardly any quicker than a manual entry.
My microwave came with the house, so while I don’t know exactly how old it is, I know it’s at least seven years old. Maybe recent microwaves have a more sensible UI. Or maybe it’s a problem that will never quite be solved.