If there’s one issue that this divided nation can agree upon, it’s a common hatred of the federal government’s dizzying, overly complicated tax forms. Show me one person who enjoys digging up last year’s return and embarking on a byzantine quest through tax credits, deductions, exemptions, and withholdings, all for a measly return, and I’ll show you a masochist. Surely, simplifying the forms and the process—shifting the burden from individual taxpayers to the tax specialists at the Internal Revenue Service—is a bipartisan issue that we can all get behind.
Alas, it is not.
Since the government already has all of the information that we put on our tax forms, it would be completely feasible for the IRS to hand us prefilled tax forms that we could review and modify if needed—eliminating most of the headache of filing. Countries like Sweden, Finland, and Spain do it already. Yet in the U.S., some moneyed third-party tax preparers oppose government tax preparation—because, according to Propublica, it poses a risk to their business. The nonprofit news organization, which has covered this topic for years, reports that big private tax companies like H&R Block and Intuit, which owns TurboTax, have been lobbying against simplifying the filing process for nearly a decade. (For its part, Intuit denies that these assertions are factually accurate.)
Regardless, all of this means that taxpayers in the U.S. are faced with a choice: file online through a tax preparer service like TurboTax or H&R Block At Home, hire an accountant, or try to navigate this mess on your own.
In fact, each year, consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers ranks 189 countries by the complexity of their taxes—and this year, the U.S. came in 35th.
It lags behind some obvious countries like the U.K. (10) and Sweden (28), but also places like Macedonia (9), Estonia (21), and Taiwan (30). It’s worth noting that the PwC data is most useful for analyzing business taxes rather and individual income tax. To come up with the list, it brings a fictional company through the taxation process for each of the countries tallied. It factors in things like time to comply, number of payments, total tax rate, and a post-filing index. Those things are difficult to calculate en masse for individual income tax because individuals don’t always save their data. Still, the PwC index is a widely used resource for determining where in the world the taxation process is the simplest. It’s also further proof that U.S. tax code reform is long overdue.
Another indicator of a tax process that doesn’t disproportionately put the onus on the filer is the design of the tax form itself. Take a look at the helpfulness and simplicity of the U.K.’s tax form as compared to the U.S.:
The form is relatively clean and simple, with the pages divided into two clear columns and the various sections blocked off. Colorful headers and easy-to-understand language directs the filer on what to do. A diagram at the top helpfully points out the important information to fill out. You still have to fill out the 10-page form yourself—it’s not prefilled—but at least it’s generously designed.
Using the PwC index as a guide, I tried to hunt down tax forms for countries with tax codes both more and less complex than the U.S. for comparison’s sake. Many were difficult to find online—at least using Google from a laptop in the U.S.—which seemed like one red flag when it comes to user-friendliness. I started with some of the surprising countries that rank better than the U.S. on tax code simplicity: Taiwan’s was a scarcely populated two-pager that looks like it would take only minutes to fill out. Macedonia’s is hard to parse as an English speaker, but it is only three pages long.
Perplexingly, Ireland, which ranks #5 on the PwC index (where #1 is the simplest), has a 36-page individual income tax return form. It pairs a vertical list of requirements with rows of tiny boxes for calculating percentages and expenses and accruals. With no visual markers to separate sections, everything runs together into a nightmarish mess reminiscent of standardized testing.
Compared to Ireland, the design of Nigeria’s form, which is ranked #182 out of 189 (the most complex is Chad, but I couldn’t find the form online), doesn’t look half bad. The type is large, the language is clear, and the numerals are in red, which give the form some visual structure.
No matter how the form is designed, however, you can’t beat the companies with the prefilled forms. That includes the Nordic countries, where design and order are top priorities. After all, this is the part of the world that has its own region-specific branding—of course it has also simplified tax forms. For example, Finland’s tax forms are divided neatly into columns and each section is boxed off for clarity. The portions the filer needs to fill are highlighted in a faint baby blue. It’s seven pages of clear language and guiding visual signifiers.
Oh and also—it’s filled out for you, so that all you need to do is review and approve or modify. That’s true user-friendly design.
The true indicator of a simple tax form, then, isn’t the graphic design of the form—this is very clearly a UX problem. The forms I found online varied from clearly legible to impossible to understand, regardless of the country. In that way, tax policy is what would benefit most from a redesign, especially given that the users, in this case, are tax-paying citizens.