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Published: August 11, 2022   |   Last Updated: August 11, 2022

NTA Blog: IRS.gov – How Usable Is It? (Part Two)

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In my previous blog post, I discussed the challenges taxpayers face when searching for information on IRS.gov. In this post, I will examine how the visual layout of IRS.gov adds unnecessary complexity and how duplicative, ambiguous, or incorrect content on IRS.gov confuses taxpayers and recommend improving the utility and ease of the site. I also want to acknowledge and applaud the IRS and the Office of Online Services for its continued efforts to improve the website to enable greater ease of use, navigation and search, and applications to facilitate the discovery and use of IRS content and functions online. Unfortunately, this will not be an easy or quick fix.

Welcome to IRS.gov! Enter at Your Own Risk

From the very beginning of their journey on IRS.gov, taxpayers face confusion and complexity. They find themselves on a homepage that has nine prominently displayed, high-traffic options that change seasonally. Each option has a very narrow application, such as Get Your Tax Record. Even the broader sounding option, Get Answers to Your Tax Questions, provides answers to only 59 pre-determined questions.

While not always visible, the homepage does have many other, broader options taxpayers can choose, but the user must roll, click, or scroll over the other sections of the homepage to find the options within, making it more difficult for taxpayers to find an easy, logical entry point in their quest for information.

Finding options isn’t the only challenge taxpayers face on the homepage; choosing the option that will get them to the needed information is the next challenge. For example, a recently divorced taxpayer goes to IRS.gov to discover how the divorce will affect their upcoming tax filing after years of filing married filing jointly. A possible taxpayer’s journey is illustrated as follows:

  • Upon arrival at the IRS.gov homepage, the taxpayer considers the nine prominently displayed options and selects the only option that seems to apply, Get Answers to Your Tax Questions.
  • This lands the taxpayer on the Interactive Tax Assistant (ITA) page, which lists the 59 questions the ITA can answer. One question is What is My Filing Status but the taxpayer thinks “filing status” means whether a return has been filed and, therefore, doesn’t select this question.
  • None of the remaining questions seem to apply, so the taxpayer navigates back to the homepage.
  • The taxpayer then considers other options on the homepage such as the top-right menu – Help, News, English, Charities & Nonprofits, and Tax Pros – and the options on the top-left menu – File, Pay, Refunds, Credits & Deductions, and Forms & Instructions – and decides that none of these seem to include information about divorce.
  • Frustrated and left with no better option, the taxpayer uses the search feature on the homepage… and a whole new frustration begins. (See Part 1 of this two-part series.)

A’Clicking We Will Go

One of the biggest challenges the IRS faces is quickly connecting users to the information they seek on IRS.gov. A good webpage offers the user a digestible amount of information in easy-to-understand terms on a topic and provides links to related and/or more specific information. Landing pages dense with links but lacking topic information can overwhelm a user, especially if it is unclear which links will lead to the information sought. IRS.gov users can face several of these link-dense pages in a row. With each click, the taxpayer’s risk of navigating further away from the desired information increases. When the taxpayer finally realizes that the path doesn’t lead to the needed information, the taxpayer must backtrack and try a different path. After clicking back and forth a few times, it’s easy for the taxpayer to lose track of which options they’ve already tried, risking heading down the same, incorrect path more than once.

Not all link paths fatigue users in the same way. Giving taxpayers options that link to specific information by drilling down isn’t frustrating to users if the path is logical. For example, offering the user links to pages discussing each type of filing status from a page generally discussing filing status makes sense. Unfortunately, I have found that IRS.gov pages tend not to use this logic trail.

Unlocking Information

Before the internet, the IRS informed taxpayers through the many publications it published. These information-dense booklets covered a vast array of topics in a fair amount of detail. Taxpayers could browse the IRS publications offered at their local library, post office, or IRS office and could take home whichever publication(s) they chose.

Today, we use the internet to find specific answers to specific questions. It uses IRS.gov as a library for its forms and publications, and it expects taxpayers to slog through multipage publications – written for print – to find the needle in the haystack that answers their question and those familiar with Portable Document Format (PDF) or similar documents may understand how to search within a document utilizing the find tool. We recommend that to assist taxpayers, the IRS needs to take that wealth of information and transform it into clear, easy-to-understand answers on IRS.gov webpages.

Tools – Don’t Leave Users Guessing

The ITA is an IRS.gov tool taxpayers can use to answer certain predetermined questions covering a variety of topics including filing requirements, retirement, and deductions. The tool asks a series of questions about the taxpayer’s circumstances and then returns a result. Such a tool is good, but ITA has many shortcomings.

It is not intuitive that the “Get Answers to Your Tax Questions” option from the homepage is the ITA entry-point. Conversely, it is equally non-intuitive this option will only give taxpayers access to the ITA tool but not to topical information. This lack of topical information, even for those taxpayers who used the ITA tool, makes it difficult for them to then vet the accuracy of the result the ITA returns. Worse, the IRS not only absolves itself of incorrect ITA results but does so in a vaguely worded disclaimer that doesn’t clearly inform taxpayers they can’t rely on ITA results.

Issues only compound once the taxpayer is in the ITA tool. Taxpayers are asked pivotal questions but aren’t provided enough information to answer the question properly. Within three clicks of entering the “How Do I Claim My Gambling Winnings and/or Losses” ITA, I’m asked if my gambling activities are a trade or business. Taxpayers are expected to correctly answer this yes/no question without any additional information or help. A simple pop-out box providing taxpayers with an easy-to-understand definition of a trade/business for tax purposes, and some key attributes needed for a gambling activity to rise to the level of a trade/business would be such a help! This absence of information increases the odds that the taxpayer may answer incorrectly, causing the ITA to return an incorrect result, and, more harmful, the taxpayer to rely on that incorrect result.

Further troubling, the ITA results page doesn’t explain the returned result, help the taxpayer understand how their answers impacted the outcome, or even provide a list of the questions and the taxpayer’s answers. How much effort will the average taxpayer put into verifying whether the ITA result is correct?

The instinctual shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder. – Nate Silver, Statistician

While the ITA results page might suggest a publication with more information, this is like closing the barn door after the cows got out. It is in our nature to stop searching for more information upon reaching an answer, especially in areas in which we have little to no expertise.

IRS.gov – The Stakes Are High

Taxpayers are continuing to place greater reliance on digital platforms over human engagement, which I believe will continue even after the IRS is fully staffed and the processing backlogs have been eliminated. Taxpayers and tax professionals have a strong desire to use self-help tools and online resources to address tax questions/issues but want these avenues to be efficient. Users highly expect website usefulness and will compare the usability of IRS.gov to all the online resources they access such as their bank, website for purchasing goods or services, and news and social media. To address users’ needs, meet their expectations, and provide quality service the IRS must improve IRS.gov.

The good news is that the IRS continues to work on its website.

The IRS’s Office of Online Services (OLS) has an ambitious plan of ongoing projects to make IRS.gov content easier to find, understand, and act on. These projects include user testing, journey mapping, and initiatives to make content more searchable and improve its placement on the site. While the Business Operating Divisions (BODs) within the IRS create and own their page content, OLS works with the BODs to help with content consistency and adherence to standards. Unfortunately, budget constraints and staffing shortages limit the scope and speed in which OLS can improve IRS.gov. With additional resources and funding, I am excited these improvements can and will be made.

Recommendations

To increase the usefulness of IRS.gov, we recommend the IRS:

  • Provide a robust, menu-driven entry point to taxpayers wishing to navigate to information from the IRS.gov homepage.
  • Create consistency through naming and landing location conventions.
  • Use logic-driven menu paths to organize information access, allowing users to easily navigate from less specific to more specific information and back again.
  • Provide a brief, topic-specific discussion on each webpage.
  • Transform topic-specific content housed in IRS publications into easy-to-understand, digestible chunks of content and place this content on IRS.gov webpages.
  • Include interactive features such as hovering question marks within the ITA tool that provide access to additional information.
  • Provide taxpayers a full, downloadable summary of the ITA tool’s final determination, including the questions asked and the taxpayer’s response.
  • Include quick response (QR) codes with the ITA tool’s final determination that, when scanned, link the taxpayer to additional information specific to their ITA search topic and increase the usage of QR codes on IRS letters and materials.
  • Continue to explore technology options to improve its webpage.

Conclusion

Applying scarce resources to improve IRS.gov may be a difficult decision for the IRS to make considering the current challenges. Nevertheless, the IRS should do more than just market IRS.gov to the public. It should provide easy to use and reliable information as one alternative to its phone service encouraging more taxpayers to avail themselves of self-help options. It must make IRS.gov a usable, convenient, and reliable solution for taxpayers and tax professionals. It must be clear, accurate and include regular updated information with timely and emerging information. Improving IRS.gov so all taxpayers have an excellent customer experience is the only way it will function as the first and only stop taxpayers need to make for tax information. Refining its usability and reliability is imperative for proper tax administration, and by improving the taxpayer’s experience with the IRS it will provide satisfaction and build trust in our tax system.

Read the past NTA Blogs

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the National Taxpayer Advocate. The National Taxpayer Advocate presents an independent taxpayer perspective that does not necessarily reflect the position of the IRS, the Treasury Department, or the Office of Management and Budget.

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