Last time, we talked about some simple design changes that would improve the usability of the IRS website. Design is helpful in showing people what is available and in guiding their path through the site, but equally important to usability is architecture and navigation.
Architecture is how the site is organized, and navigation is the visual manifestation of that organization. One typical architecture mistake that website owners make is organizing their website like their company is organized. I strongly suspect that's happening on the IRS site. Categories like individuals, businesses, retirement community, and tax preparers are meaningful to the IRS because that is how they think of tax payers. But is it the way tax payers think about themselves? Are these categories even relevant to them?
Much more useful, I think, is to organize the site by what people want to do, which I am assuming for purposes of this entry is to file taxes, download tax forms, or get tax info.*
Admittedly, this design needs some work, but it is a good low-fidelity prototype that shows how much simpler and easier this page can be when the architecture is organized by function rather than by user category. There’s still room to put in a box of popular links or promotions or whatever extra info the IRS wants to tell users about, but there’s no need to clutter the page up with a lot of extra information that isn’t pertinent to most people coming to the site.
Once people chose what they want to do, they can be guided though the process using wizards (for filing taxes) and filtered navigation for everything else. It is in this part of the site that the categories like individual and business come into play; because this site is mostly a collection of documents, the IRS could allow users to find forms or tax info by their status (individual, business, etc.) or by other categories such as yearly income or dependants. Think of the navigation used by clothing store sites like Zappos: you find what you want by narrowing it down with a series of filters. This type of navigation is really a hybrid of navigation and search, and it can be very effective on wide and deep sites like IRS.gov.
A final glance back at the current home page underscores how much friendlier the simplified version of the page is:
One can only hope that the IRS decides to make at least some of these changes soon.
* Of course, if I was hired to overhaul this site, I would actually do user analysis and testing to find out what people are looking for when they come to site; web professionals can hypothesize about the target audience of a site, but they should always test their theories with actual users.