Why are America’s Tax Forms Still so Horribly Designed?

Meg Miller at Co.Design: “If there’s one issue that this divided nation can agree upon, it’s a common hatred of the federal government’s dizzying, overly complicated tax forms. Show me one person who enjoys digging up last year’s return and embarking on a byzantine quest through tax credits, deductions, exemptions, and withholdings, all for a measly return, and I’ll show you a masochist. Surely, simplifying the forms and the process—shifting the burden from individual taxpayers to the tax specialists at the Internal Revenue Service—is a bipartisan issue that we can all get behind.

Alas, it is not.

Since the government already has all of the information that we put on our tax forms, it would be completely feasible for the IRS to hand us prefilled tax forms that we could review and modify if needed—eliminating most of the headache of filing. Countries like Sweden, Finland, and Spain do it already. Yet in the U.S., some moneyed third-party tax preparers oppose government tax preparation—because, according to Propublica, it poses a risk to their business. The nonprofit news organization, which has covered this topic for years, reports that big private tax companies like H&R Block and Intuit, which owns TurboTax, have been lobbying against simplifying the filing process for nearly a decade. (For its part, Intuit denies that these assertions are factually accurate.)

Regardless, all of this means that taxpayers in the U.S. are faced with a choice: file online through a tax preparer service like TurboTax or H&R Block At Home, hire an accountant, or try to navigate this mess on your own.

In fact, each year, consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers ranks 189 countries by the complexity of their taxes—and this year, the U.S. came in 35th….

Another indicator of a tax process that doesn’t disproportionately put the onus on the filer is the design of the tax form itself….

For example, Finland’s tax forms are divided neatly into columns and each section is boxed off for clarity. The portions the filer needs to fill are highlighted in a faint baby blue. It’s seven pages of clear language and guiding visual signifiers.

Oh and also—it’s filled out for you, so that all you need to do is review and approve or modify. That’s true user-friendly design.

The true indicator of a simple tax form, then, isn’t the graphic design of the form—this is very clearly a UX problem. The forms I found online varied from clearly legible to impossible to understand, regardless of the country. In that way, tax policy is what would benefit most from a redesign, especially given that the users, in this case, are tax-paying citizens….(More)”