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/Shutterstock.com)

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.

NEXT STORY: Quick Hits

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.