Site Review: IRS.gov

I get mad when technology is hard to use.  Why should I have to read a manual to use my TV remote or my cell phone?  Shouldn’t it just be obvious?  Same thing with setting up my new computer or using websites: there should be minimal reading involved.  And it should be easy.

Google is the famous example of a website that’s easy to use—at least the search function is.  It’s effective because the page is so simple: big white page, one box with only two buttons.  It’s hard to get confused or screw up because there are only one or two things you can do on the page.

Unfortunately, most websites can’t be as simple as Google because they have more than one feature.  So, the question is: how does one make a site with a lot of content as easy to use as Google?

I spent some time on the IRS website recently, www.irs.gov, and I wasn’t impressed.  Admittedly, the IRS’s user pool consists of all tax paying Americans, but then, Google accommodates an even larger group of users, and they are worldwide.  You might think that the IRS site would need to be a lot more complicated than Google, but I would argue that there are only three things someone would want to do with the IRS site: download tax forms, file taxes, and look up tax info.  Sounds simple, right?  And, I think it is. 

The complicated part is filing taxes, and the IRS has farmed that out to third-party “Free File” sites that have done all the heavy lifting of creating digital tax forms.  So, what we are left with for the IRS site to deal with is tax forms and tax info—and the IRS can’t even do that well.

Of course, government sites are notoriously badly designed; the legal requirement that government agencies make their business visible to the tax paying public means that we end up with a lot of ugly sites that are basically document repositories with ad hoc organization.  It’s horrible stuff, really.  But, it’s worse with the IRS because unlike other government sites—like say the U.S. Government Printing Office (www.gpoaccess.gov)—most of us can’t avoid the IRS site because it is badly designed; we have to muddle through it.  Paying your taxes is already so confusing and fraught with peril; the IRS site manages to make it even more so.

There are way too many problems with the site to talk about in one blog entry, so for today, I’ll just give an overview:

  • First, on the presentation front, the site is strangely bereft of color.  Looking at the home page, my eye doesn’t know where to go because everything looks the same.  And, what about the layout? What is content and what is navigation?  Everything looks so similar and is so crammed together, it is hard to know what is what.  The problems with layout become especially acute one you get past the home page: secondary, tertiary navigation, pages full of links—what gives? Sometimes when you click on something, you are taken to what appears to be an entirely different section of the site, and without visual cues, it is very difficult to orient yourself.

  • Which brings me to my second point: I’m not even sure what is navigation and what is content.  I figure that the stuff at the top, Individuals, Businesses, Charities & Non-Profits, and so on, is user-based navigation, but what about where it says, Forms and Publications or Online Services?  Those seem like parts of the navigation or are they? 

  • Three: All of the navigation and layout problems could be more easily solved if someone took the time to really analyze the users and site content and came up with an architecture that makes sense.  I’m not even convinced that the site needs to be organized by different types of users—I suspect the IRS is making the classic mistake of organizing their web site using their internal structure rather than by the way that users actually interact with the IRS.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to explore each of these points in more detail and make suggestions on how to fix these problems.

IRS.gov logo
IRS: Is this a feature or part of the navigation?
IRS services: Part of the navigation or a feature?