How FreeFile Almost Cost Me Plenty

Let’s talk for a moment about why I misfiled my tax extension. Melty Jello brain aside, bad software design almost cost my little family $2,500.

Background:

When I’m not wrestling a one-year-old into tiny shoes, I’m a User Experience Designer. This means I work with software companies to create easy-to-understand interfaces.

It also means that when I screw up my tax extension, I look very carefully at the software path that got me there.

Dramatic Reenactment:

It was April. I needed to file an extension. Like most Bay Area tech nerds, I hate mail. I consider it a personal affront if I have to print out a form, write an address, locate stamps, and put a letter in the whatsit…mailbox…thing. Naturally, my first step was to search irs.gov for “file extension online”.

Problem one: Too many results

The IRS site is too damned helpful. There were 948 results for my search. Many results were press release or blog type articles hinting at the existence of online extension filing, but containing no direct links. I wanted to find one or two good matches. Instead, I found a sea of irrelevance.

Problem two: Too many names

I hopped down a bunny trail for about ten minutes, searching for a feature alternately referred to as “E-file an extension”, “Free file”, “Freefile”, “Free Fillable Forms”, “Free File Fillable Forms”, “Free Federal Extension”, “Form 4868”, “Traditional Free File”, and “IRS e-file”.

Problem three: Inconsistent design

I eventually landed on a modern-looking site that seemed likely. I clicked “Get Started” and wandered through four increasingly less-well-designed pages which jumped from site to site, forcing me to read and parse options despite having already told the system what I wanted.

Problem three: Asshole account requirement

The eventual winner was a page called “Free File Fillable Forms” which required me to create an account and update my Flash plugin. I was already logged in to irs.gov, but that didn’t count. I created “a password that is different than my User ID, between 8 and 32 characters, and contains at least 1 number and 1 symbol”. All the eye-rolling gave me a headache.

Problem four: Misleading email

I received a spammy looking ALL CAPS email telling me my account had been created. I filled out the IRS extension form, which was the easiest part of the process. I submitted, and received another spammy ALL CAPS email saying “Your federal return was successfully transmitted”.

At this point, I fell on the bed and whined to my husband for several minutes about information architecture. Then I fell asleep, secure in the certainty that I had filed an automatic extension. Taxes wouldn’t be bothering us for a few more months, by which time we would certainly be getting more sleep.

Months passed. There was no sleep, but we still did our taxes. One day, we received an exciting letter! The 8-32 character password was for naught. We hadn’t filed an extension. We were scofflaw losers who owed the IRS huge penalties.

What happened? Email forensics turned up the unhappy answer. Seven and a half hours after I had filed the form, I quietly received a final ALL CAPS email. It looked the same as the others, and had the same subject line. It filtered right into the folder I use for Crap Communications from Companies.

Our extension had returned “Error Code 0312: Reserved for Electronically Transmitted Documents (ETD)”. At least they provided an acronym in case I needed one.

I hadn’t noticed the email. I didn’t realize the form had been rejected. It was my mistake, but it could have been prevented with a more carefully designed user experience.

Lessons:

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer article called File your taxes free, but read carefully points out that the Free File service is made up of several companies who each have different restrictions on who can file online. This would have been good to know. If my age and/or income didn’t match the criteria, the system should not have let me submit my form.

Back-end form validation isn’t that hard. It is easier to filter out invalid data than to waste the IRS’s time by submitting a flawed document, parsing return error codes, notifying the user, and having the user write critical blog posts about you.

I’m not sure why my extension failed. The error code only tells me what I already know: that I filed electronically, and that the first letters of Electronically Transmitted Documents are ETD. A more specific error system would be nice.

Still, the real reason I feel double-crossed can be attributed to an oversight shared by other, better websites. Nobody thought of email communications as part of the user experience. One person made the website, and another person wrote the emails. Chances are the email person was a clever engineer who made a template and inserted variables instead of crafting separate text for each use case. Entire lines of code were saved. And as a result, every email has the same subject heading. Every email looks like a bit of auto-generated confirmation junk, and nobody actually designed the most crucial communication in the entire experience.

An Introvert’s Guide to Writing

Introvert,  extrovert, or false dichotomy?

I’ve been baring my soul and cockeyed schemes on the internet since 1997. I tell total strangers here on this site about my life, my thoughts on work, and the things that bring me joy. I’ve had two jobs where I acted professionally. I love making strangers smile. On Sundays, I invite everyone I’ve ever met to my home for BYOBrunch, and bask in the glow of a full room of happy people. I have sung badly in public, danced at any opportunity, and told jokes in front of large crowds. Very little embarrasses me.

Extrovert.

But I spend most of my life absorbing data. I work behind the scenes on applications that are the digital equivalent of sand mandalas. At my best, my effort becomes invisible, unnoticed. I love silence. My favorite vacation activity is walking through strange cities alone, or snorkling, both ways of existing in the divine silence of another world. I curl up like a cat under a blanket to recharge. When I had my daughter, I didn’t leave the house for four months. I order takeout by internet rather than phone. I rarely use my phone as a phone. I avoid answering emails, even from good friends.

Introvert.

I think the introvert/extrovert dichotomy attempts to explain seemingly incongruous tendencies that can arise in social animals. Our social dynamic and learned responses reflect a variety of alpha- or herd instincts. I would be  surprised if most people completely embody one or the other.

In related news, I’m sitting in the Noe Valley Library courtyard, and a group of middle-school kids are in front of me, giggling and making prank calls. Extroversion? Anonymous herd aggression as bonding mechanism?

Time to get up and go to the coffeeshop? Yes.

A Parent’s Life as a Video Game

Header Texture

I work in the video game industry, so I tend to think of life in these terms. For example, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I realized that pregnancy is essentially a really immersive resource-conservation RPG. I was always asking myself questions like: “Do I pick up this stuff on the floor, or do I save my Bending Over points for later?”

Recently several of my coworkers became parents, so in celebration of my fecund and nerdy cohort, here’s a description of my last week written entirely in video game terms:

Select character

  •   Warrior (Battle baroque parental leave laws)
    .
  •  Wizard sprite Wizard (Create nutritious meals for baby using own body)
    .
  • Rogue sprite Rogue (Sneak around to accomplish things while the baby sleeps)
    .
  •   Paladin (The power of the Coffee God will protect your party)
    .

New player tutorial

Read Kid Wrangling by Kaz Cooke, SuperBaby by Jenn Berman, and The Cat in the Hat over and over and over and over.

Challenge

Find outfits for upcoming family photo. Avoid decade-indicating fashion or hairstyles.

Parental achievement unlocked!

Raffi song stuck in head for more than four days.

Bonus

How long can you deflect drool from your work clothes? GO!

Level up!

Child can now turn pages of a book. Good work!

Save game

Improve your long-term memory by adding minutes of sleep during train commute

Cheat

Enter “Up up down down left right start” in the deductions section of your tax form

The Typography of Greenwashing

Instead of watching House episodes all day like a normal person, I spent one of my vacation days making a video about the media practice of greenwashing.

According to the world’s only remaining viable encyclopedia, greenwashing is the “practice of companies disingenuously spinning their products and policies as environmentally friendly.”

I’m interested in the graphic design motifs that seem to pop up whenever a product wants to advertise itself as Good for the Environment. I was inspired by my hilarious friend Gus’s Media Show episode on greenwashing, and I started thinking about all the sans-serif fonts and burlap lining the shelves of my local organic grocery store.*

This is my first video, and I was a bit nervous. I used iMovie to do the editing, and I slapped the whole thing together in an afternoon with the help of some coffee and a misplaced sense of social justice.

I’d like to do more of this. If you guys have any suggestions for other ornery Librarian Avenger topics, I’d love to hear them.

* I live in San Francisco. I patronize an organic grocery store. I don’t own a car or a tv. Live the stereotype!
** That’s Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing in the background, who is the boss of you.

Hey, Library of Congress. Cut that shit out.

Oh hello Library of Congress. I didn’t see you there. Nice running into you like this!

glassesbuttonYou know, I’ve always admired your electronic resources and open-minded collections policies. My undergraduate university and career have both profited from your generous grantmaking, and your reading room sure is fun to visit when I’m in town!

Being a big organization sucks, doesn’t it? You do your best but, well, you can’t keep track of everything. Sometimes you just end up with people in charge of the Congressional Research Service, who for whatever reason, act like complete dumbfucks.

Revolutionary LibrarianYou must be very embarrassed. I mean, rescinding a job offer because you thought the candidate’s upcoming gender reassignment was…what? Icky?

You had better be fucking embarrassed. The federal court recently fined you $500,000 for your treatment of former Army Special Forces Commander Diane Schroer, who, I suspect, has better things to do than get jerked around by library staff.

I mean, career damage and humiliation aside, it seems like an anti-terrorism analyst’s time might be better spent out of court FIGHTING TERRORISM. A subject you DC dwellers seem to get pretty excited about under normal circumstances.
What’s going on here Library of Congress? Couldn’t think of anything better to do with 500 grand? I wonder how many smaller libraries out there could say the same.

So tell me, is it really easier to house decision makers capable of grossly immoral and illegal actions than it is to cull employees who show these traits? Are Library jobs really so stable that a hiring manager feels comfortable acting on overt prejudice?

And who is this legacy codger you’ve been harboring anyway? A political appointee from the 1880s?  Are there really adults in this world who have never met a transwoman and are ALL AFLUTTER by the idea?

If so, perhaps it might help to read a book or two on the subject. You might enjoy this one from your own extensive archives:

An examination of discrimination against transgender Americans in the workplace: hearing before the Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, Committee on Education and Labor, U.S. House of Representatives.

Anyway Library of Congress, It’s a brand new administration and I’m sure you’ve learned your lesson. I expect your excellent reference staff will happily direct anyone who has experienced this kind of hiring discrimination to the ACLU.

Bookbinding Tattoo, concept art

Someone asked me where I found the art for my nonexistent biopsy scar-covering tattoo, and I thought you guys might be interested…
This came from a series of 18th Century bookbindings. It’s too elaborate for reality, perhaps, but I liked the idea.

This was intended to cover a scar that I have grown rather fond of. The tattoo plan was scrapped, but the concept was good.

I sampled my skin color from a photo, isolated two different florets from book covers I found in a digital library collection, overlapped them, messed with transparency, did a color mask to match a brown ink, and then chickened out at the last minute.

For more on why I didn’t get a tattoo, please see this very special episode of Red vs. Blue.

Technorati Tags: tattoo, book, bookbinding, librarian, nerd, geek

A nerdygirl review of the Game Developers Conference

Greetings from an ethnic librarian working in the games industry!

I’m posting this review of my experience last year at GDC (the Game Developers Conference) held every year here in San Francisco. It was originally part of a letter to my team here at Linden Lab, but I thought you librarians might be interested/amused, considering the gender ratio at most library conferences.

-Erica

Hi guys –
I went to the Game Developers Conference last year and found it to be of dubious value.

The best part of the conference for me was the Expo room, which proved to be a valuable source of alternative employment opportunities. I learned that if I want to move to Las Vegas and design slot machine interfaces, I can more than double my salary, which I’m keeping in mind for when I have a stroke and develop an unquenchable desire for polyester and/or chicken wings. I enjoyed scanning the various game interfaces set up to demo motion graphics products, and filed away a few ideas from the Pirates of the Caribbean MMORPG.


Photo by ruminatrix

For me, however, the most memorable moment was riding the escalator of the Moscone center and gazing across a sea of black-clad gamed developers among whom I was the only woman.

As a Person of Estrogen and part of a numeric majority in this world, I’m used to seeing many female developers, operations experts, and release managers at work.

This isn’t the 1970s. Nerdy women exist and thrive. San Francisco is a welcoming place.

GDC. Was. Not.

I get the feeling that all is not well with an operation that returns such a limited array.

The scene: riding the escalator, about five years too old but still worried about being mistaken for a boothbabe.

Behold my personal benchmark for outsider discomfort.

wurst

In summary: meh to the GDC.

Borrow someone’s pass and check out the Expo. Cruise the demo games. If you really care about a session, read the person’s book or website instead. And if you really care about making better games, spend the three days watching user observation videos.

Librarian Revolution

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Librarians see themselves as the guardians of the First Amendment… I wouldn’t mess with them. I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group.

— Michael Moore, after outraged librarians saved his book

To celebrate our profession’s revolutionary approach toward freedom of expression,
I have created a new product line* at the Librarian Avengers store, featuring the Revolutionary Librarian. She’s a deadpan librarian, wielding the Flaming Stamp of justice. You can get her on a coffee cup, shirt, or on some glossy cards to send to your nettlesome patrons. Yes, those are knitting needles in her hair.

*As usual, all proceeds go toward the Erica family “mortgage and random charities” fund

Ethnically Librarian

I am a librarian. I am not a librarian.

I have an information science degree. I’ve been working for fourteen years, my entire adult life. Most of my jobs have been in libraries.

I am a librarian. I am not a librarian.

emdot
photo by emdot

As a student at Michigan State University, I learned Library of Congress serials cataloging.

I walked through secluded aisles surrounded by rare books, incunabulum, alternative newspapers, and gay pornography.
I cataloged comic books in the world’s largest archive of comic art, radicalism, and popular culture.

In the course of my work, I learned that Spiderman serials change their volume as often as many Spiderman readers change their underwear. By graduation, I could walk into any comic shop in the country and pick a fight about whether X-Men film adaptations should be considered canon.

When I went to graduate school (Michigan ’03), my program had recently transitioned from “Library Science” to “Information Science.” In the process, they picked up a bunch of renegade computer science professors and expanded to include information architecture, information economics, archival theory, and a bunch of crazyass dot com bubble refugees like myself.

sh0dan
photo by sh0dan

We discovered that the term Digital Library can be used to describe an entire array of cool shit, including the Internet itself.

One of my professors, Sue Davidson, tells the story of how Yahoo cofounder Jerry Yang called to ask about the subject guide to the web she had created for the Michigan Electronic Library. Sue answered: “that’s what librarians do, we organize information.”

Librarianship, defined as the act of organizing information, is a broad and inclusive field. Librarianship as a profession, is not. There are strict professional guidelines determining who is and is not technically a “Librarian,” but there is also a strong case to be made for the authenticity of self-identification.

There are librarians who work in libraries, and there are librarians who just Are.

It’s the difference between being a Jew by Religion, and being a Jew by Ethnicity. Both groups contribute to the cultural whole.

While a Librarian by Profession is inherently a Librarian by Ethnicity, the opposite may not be true. A trained librarian can sport a different job title, but her clarity and understanding will still contribute to her work.

by Syntopia
photo by Syntopia

I’m a librarian by ethnicity.

Right now, I work as a user experience designer on a software team. I wrestle with ship dates, dependencies, conflicting user requirements, and engineering constraints. I design interfaces and help identify how the software should behave.

But somewhere, deep in my soul, I am doing the work of the Library.

I’m a librarian by ethnicity, regardless of the job I take. I don’t make my living as an ALA going, patron-helping organizer of resources, but I’ll be damned if I don’t use Librarian skills to battle confusing groupings of information.

Librarians bring order to chaos, and so, with a little luck, do I.