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IRS Draws on UX Principles to Redesign Tax Withholding Estimator

The agency is broadly redesigning its public-facing applications to be more efficient and user-friendly.

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In this photo illustration the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website seen displayed on a smartphone. Selective focus.
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The U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is overhauling its public-facing services through an iterative design process that incorporates direct feedback and allows for ongoing updates to its user experience design.

The initiative is in line with broad-reaching federal IT reforms designed to modernize legacy systems and streamline major services, according to comments from IRS IT leaders at the 2022 Government UX Summit hosted by this week.

The overhaul of user-facing IRS applications focuses on redesigning the layout of the most widely used online portals, particularly the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator. This initiative launched after an IRS digital service review that recommended prioritizing applications whose redesign would have the greatest positive impact on the American public.

“In 2017, the online services team at IRS reviewed a detailed assessment of all the web applications on,” said Kira Prin, IRS Product Development Specialist, at the UX Summit. “One of the recommendations was to rebuild the withholding calculator because it was a popular application with millions of users every year, but it wasn’t mobile-friendly, it didn’t match the design, and in its previous form the withholding calculator did not conform to the typical user expectations of modern-day web experiences.”

Prior investment in remote access and stakeholder collaboration allowed IRS developers and UX designers to continue this work amidst the pandemic, expediting the overall redesign process.

“In 2020, the team switched to a fully remote environment due to the pandemic and kept updating the backlog with tickets based on user feedback received through the feedback button in the application,” Prin said. “At the same time the UX team conducted fully remote moderating user testing sessions, something we hadn’t done at this level before to taste the changes made between September and December 2019.”

IRS also incorporated user analytics that gather data on user experience and navigation within the application, noting potential inefficiencies and improvement areas, and incorporating these insights within the ongoing refining of the tax withholding estimator.

“We have a refined approach. We test again, we repeat as necessary, and we update the application with continuous analytics and feedback from an embedded survey and user testing,” said Samuel Chapman, IRS Digital User Experience Analyst, at the UX Summit.

The changes to IRS digital services followed a rubric designed to improve specific areas within the broader user experience.

“The team knew we needed to address the following points: user interface improvements to create a seamless user experience across devices, status notification so users know where they are in the process, optimized content for better user comprehension, more accurate results through code and interface enhancements, and easier updates and modifications through technical improvements planning for the 2020 W-4 form,” Prin said.

These efforts helped create a more streamlined and user-friendly experience, and have been incorporated into a comprehensive iterative design process that remains key to IRS’ ongoing modernization.

“We try to test all new changes to validate them,” Chapman said. “So as soon as the development team is ready to start, the UX team already has data to support the proposed changes we use to test a full prototype with real participants before launching all changes to the public and working out any fine details before deployment.”

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