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.

Kaiser Perminente’s website causes heartburn, sleeplessness

Yesterday I tweeted:

The Kaiser Permanente site is pretty, but someone organized it using their butt.

I had just spent an hour on their member website trying to set my daughter’s primary care doctor. The links I followed did not lead to useful content. I was frustrated. I wrote:

I officially volunteer to redesign the Kaiser site. For free. Just so I don’t have to use it in its current state. Call me.

And I got a response! Sort of. In the form of an autoreply directing me to the Contact Web Manager form.

I’m pretty certain I can’t re-architect a site in a fixed-width six line text box in under 1000 characters.

Still, I tried. Here’s my cranky critique, crammed into a tiny webform textbox after a day spent with a teething baby and no clue who her doctor is:

  1. Kaiser. You break my heart. Your site architecture is spaghetti.
  2. Link titles should match their destinations.
  3. Text should be optimized for the web. Cut the wordcount by 75%. Seriously, cut the “If you prefer, you may call us” wordy bullshit. It actively prevents people from getting the information they need.
  4. Dynamic, member-specific content like records and messages should not try to ship you off to one size fits all “resource” pages.
  5. Who is your user? Members? Potential Members? Employers? Identify common use cases and count the number of steps and breakpoints.
  6. “Are you an Employer?” is not a helpful architectural node.
  7. I can tell you sprung for the bulk membership to clipart.com, so kudos on the pretty pictures but they eat up most of the space if you insist on a 10 year old fixed width layout. Grow some CSS.
  8. Seriously. I love Kaiser, but this site hurts me.

 

I’ll keep you guys updated if anything exciting happens as a result of my whiny ranting. I’m sure there are fifty good reasons why their site sucks the way it does, but as a user I simply don’t care. I want a big red “do the thing I want” button. And possibly a pony.

Vote for me on the SXSW Panel Picker

Rock The Vote Poster

I can’t be self-promotional all alone here, people. I need your help! Vote for meeeee!

My proposal is up for voting right now on the South By Southwest Interactive Panel Picker. It’s a geek frenzy over there. Vote early and often.

VOTE HERE (login required)

Panel Proposal:

Video Game Research: Failing Our Way to Victory

Users are weird. They tell you one thing and do another. They click everywhere and read nothing. Erica Firment, a User Experience designer for Linden Lab/Second Life, chronicles fast and effective ways to make your software suck less by spending a few hours watching users fail.

  1. How can video games win by watching their players fail?
  2. What is video game user research?
  3. What do you mean by “watch users fail?”
  4. Can’t I just send out a survey? (NO!)
  5. Why are 3D world interfaces hard to design?
  6. What are some things in Second Life that got better by watching users fail?
  7. How does Second Life collect information?
  8. Why should developers and product managers invest in user research?
  9. What are some easy ways for me to do user research?
  10. What are some cheap ways for me to do user research?

Discussing geek speak with The Austin Chronicle

A lovely fellow from The Austin Chronicle wrote to my fellow South by Southwest panelists asking for a definition of our enigmatically titled presentation. He wanted to know what a “Funologist” was, and rather than sadden him with the news that our moderator made it up, we all took a shot at defining it for him.

The full article is available here: How to Speak Geek – SXSW Interactive has landed. Can you talk the talk?

I’m quoted about halfway down. Fame!

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.

SXSW Interactive 2009 – Funologists live and in person: Guerilla Game Research

Happy news! I was invited to be a panelist at the South by Southwest Interactive conference next month, as part of their ScreenBurn track. bendoverbackwards.jpgI’m on a panel called “Funologists live and in person: Guerilla Game Research.”

I’ll share my experience starting some low-budget user research cycles for Second Life, and my work translating those frustrating observations into shippable engineering requirements.

There will be pretty pictures, and possibly cake.

The cake is a lie, but you should stop by anyway. There could be cake.

There certainly won’t be cake and not cake. Not at the same time, I can assure you.

Five things I love about Firefox 3

FireFox Logo

If you are feeling early-adopter-y, you can hop over to mozilla.org and download the new Firefox 3 Beta build. It’s faster, slicker, and has OMG HOT new UI tools that should make your day better.

Five Things I love about Firefox 3:

  1. Because this is a beta version, most of my extensions and themes don’t work in F3…and I don’t miss ’em. I’ve been using it all day and haven’t had a single withdrawal symptom.
  2. Fast. Hella fast. Hecka fast. So damn fast. The memory management of Firefox 3 is slick. It caches less, stores image data more efficiently, and plugs memory leaks from extensions before they happen. This all comes from of the kind of nerdy nerdy attention to detail that was a feature of pre-Moore’s law programming, when bits were carefully placed like bricks in an arch. Hooray for OCD programming!
  3. Oh Bookmarks! Ye annoy me less! You are now a one-click thing on the navigation bar, with a cute star icon instead of a time-eating top menu monster.
  4. Full Page Zoom. If you don’t like squinting, download this browser. Hitting Ctrl + makes EVERYTHING get bigger, including images. This feature eliminates the “Big Text Stomps Nice Layout” problem we saw in earlier versions.
  5. Tab quickmenu. Stop worrying about all those tabs stacking up in your window. You can get at them from a dropdown in the corner. No fuss. There’s more room for page titles too, so you don’t have to find the tab you want using only the first ten characters.

It’s hard out here for a digital library interface designer/product manager


Photo by パックマン

10:40pm and I’m still at work.

Science Magazine is publishing a blurb about our library of animal sounds on Thursday. We got an award for second-best “educational interactive”. Yay.

Unfortunately, this means that a huge group of people are going to visit our site.

And our site was, up to a few weeks ago, still half-baked. We’ve got one of those higher education software teams, consisting of five underpaid geeks and a couple of CS students. Ebay, we are not.
These last few weeks have been a blur. Everyone on my team is pulling dot com hours, working for twelve hours on Sundays, and generally being foolish with work-life balance.

Tonight we ate dinner at the mall food court.

The weird part is, I love this.
I love the focus.
I love the commiseration.
I love the feeling of doing something good for the world that I get working at a nonprofit.

But right now, I would really love a beer and some sleep.
Goodnight, all.