Civic tech intern discovers that human-centered design is happening at the IRS

Steve Kelman checks in on the Coding it Forward initiative.

quality assurance (Song_about_summer/

Some blog readers will doubtless remember that I have blogged a few times about the amazing undergraduate student organization called Coding it Forward. Along with the much-older organization Code for America, which targets state and local government, Coding it Forward, which works with federal agencies, has now become one of the two leading groups in the civic tech space, which seeks to give young techies an opportunity to serve the public good. Its main activity is the civic digital fellowship, now four years old, which provides paid summer tech internships with federal agencies – this last summer, a total of 62. The only condition for internships agencies offer students is that the projects be meaningful and directly serve the public good.

A new blog has just been published presenting the experience of one of the fellows this past summer. The author is Irene Guo, a cognitive science and design major at UC San Diego who worked on user-centered design at the Internal Revenue Service. Guo's blog overflows with appreciation and sincerity, and it was particularly meaningful for someone like me who has observed the emergence of the phrase “user-centered design” in the federal government, but has been mildly skeptical about whether anyone was actually doing it.

Guo is a self-described civic tech newbie who was “pretty clueless about it a few months ago.” When she got the fellowship with the IRS, she wrote, “I had very little knowledge about civic tech and limited interaction with the government, [so] I had no idea what to expect.” She added that “mentions of the IRS don’t exactly bring up warm and fuzzy feelings. However, I was ecstatic for the opportunity to apply my learnings for societal betterment — this is what drew me to this Fellowship in the first place.”

Soon Guo learned that the IRS had an Office of User Experience and Design inside their online services department: “Yes, you read it right! The IRS has an official office, whose designers improve taxpayers’ processes by establishing a consistent user experience and enhancing usability across all digital products and services.”

At the IRS, Guo wrote, “I was able to discuss the agency’s digital products with product analysts and UX analysts; you may have even used some of these services, like Tax Withholding Estimator (TWE), Free File, and Online Account. It was incredible learning the reasoning behind their design implementations — they were explicitly incorporating taxpayer feedback from usability testing sessions and survey data to drive their product development and modifications!”

She also was impressed by the civil servants with whom she interacted: ”That’s when I recognized how dedicated the IRS is to serving the people, and how they uphold the human-centered design thinking process so deeply within their agency. These designers are determined to dig out pain points with current products to ensure their user’s needs are met.”

Guo learned that the IRS was doing usability testing on new products, corresponding to user-centered design best practice. She got permission to sit in on usability testing for a new app, the Tax Withholding Estimator. “This service, which the IRS recently developed, enables taxpayers to check how much tax they should withhold from their paycheck,” she wrote. 

She “was thrilled as user testing sessions are one of my favorite activities. All of the users I observed expressed how delighted they were about the tool’s efficiency and convenience. One user even eagerly stated they were going to use the service right after the session was over. These remarks pushed me to grasp how the IRS’s digital products can make such a meaningful impact on people’s lives.”

Guo concludes her blog by saying she wanted to thank her IRS supervisors, Michael Lin and Tom Hsieh, and I want to join that shout-out for these civil servants. “You all have changed me for the better,” she wrote, “and I will forever be your hype woman.”

Guo’s blog was amazing, both because of her experience and because through it I learned that the IRS is genuinely doing user-centered design. Let the agency’s example spread widely.

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