I'm going to tell a tale of usability... a tale of trying to file my taxes online at the last possible minute (nearly, anyhow).

Well, I started at wellsfargo.com, first, because I remembered seeing that they had tax filing online. Yep, there on the front page was the promise that I could file online at Wells:

"Visit our Tax Center for all your tax needs. You'll find resources and tools to help with tax planning and strategies, and you can even file your returns online!".

However, when I clicked to the page offered, I discovered that I could only get money markets and IRAs and such... no filing option whatsoever. Bah.

So, as I do in times of trouble, I went to Yahoo. I did a quick search for tax and online filing, and found what appeared to be exactly what I needed: Yahoo! Online Tax Filing with H&R Block. I read the FAQ, I registered, I agreed to the terms of service and then, unsurprisingly, their servers were too slow and I was booted out.

I'm annoyed, since I just went through the hassle of registering and now can't complete my transaction, but they are kind enough to leave a message:

"We are expecting a significant number of customers to the online tax program during these final days of tax season. Due to increased traffic, you may experience slower than normal page-load times. For best results, we recommend you log on during the hours of 10 p.m. to 9 a.m., EDT.

"If you prefer, you may download a copy of our award-winning TaxCut software for $9.95. To download TaxCut, simply choose a link below and follow the instructions. Please note � if you have already started your return in the online tax program, any data you have saved will not be transferable into TaxCut.

"TaxCut download for Windows users

TaxCut download for Mac users"

I want to point out that I would feel much better about clicking on a link that said, "Find out more about Taxcut" than "Taxcut download for Windows users"...

This is what it ought to have said anyway: the link took me to a sales page for taxcut. Unfortunately, once I was there, I had a hard time figuring out how much it would cost. Although it said $9.95 in giant letters at the top of the page, a little further down I found this:

"*Physical Version: Credit Card required. One free electronically filed return with enclosed mail-in rebate. Downloadable Version: E-file fees of $6.95 for your first e-file and $12.95 for each additional filing up to four more apply for the downloadable versions."

Had no idea what that was all about. (btw, spelling error theirs)

I'd also like to say that all this was happening in a small pop-up window with no toolbars, and the server kept timing out, and of course I had no easy way to go "back" (I right-clicked to go back, but I think I may not be a typical user). "Clever" design kills usability again.

Next I traveled to HotBot, searched on tax, and found a link to "e-filing" on the IRS site. I clicked it to learn more.

I arrive on a page that gives me about six options to learn more. Of the options, I pick this one because it appears to allow me to file both state and federal.

"Federal/State e-file For Taxpayers

Federal/State e-file lets taxpayers file their Federal and state returns electronically at the same time. It is available to you through tax professionals, or in some states by filing from your home computer."

I read the FAQ. California is listed as a state that doesn't support joint filing, but I can file electronically separately (I think. There were three tables, and it was a bit confusing). Unfortunately neither of these sections of the FAQ links to a place where I can accomplish my desired task. So now I know it can be done, I just have no idea how.

I go back, and I choose the link from this paragraph:

"Filing Your Taxes Was Never Easier

Publication 1857 contains an overview of the three e-file options available for individuals. These options include filing through a tax professional; filing through a personal computer, or filing over the telephone."

I fear Publication 1857 because of the name ... how can you trust someone who has more than 1857 publications?

I'm still trying to get through to H&R in another window... server is slow, but I'm getting through... and then, it asks me to create a membership. I know I already joined, so I backtrack, click a button that purports to allow me to continue a tax return already in progress. I am asked to sign in, I sign in, and voila! It tells me there is no user cwodtke.

Bah. Back to the IRS. They are starting to look reasonable.

Back at the IRS site, I have just found this lovely and unthreatening Publication 1857 which tells me I can find a software company that can provide me with e-filing. H&R block, perhaps?

I scan down a long list of mysterious companies (www.fileyourtaxes.com, www1040a.com) and then I see Intuit. Ah, a brand name. So I try them.

I'm already feeling more confident. I start the process.

Wow, already I notice a difference. H&R asked me what my taxable income was. I had a hard time figuring it out. It involved guessing standard deductions, etc.

Turbotax (Intuit's product) simply asks:

"Question: Did you earn more than $57,050 (or $62,700 if you are married) in wages and interest income?"

This I understand. I say, no. Then I reached a page that asked me what state I was in and told me they would file both my state and federal taxes.

At this point I shouted "Turbo Tax, I love you! I'll pay you anything!" I frightened the cats.

I then received this message:

"You can use TurboTax EZ. Let's begin!

Based on your responses, you should be able to file your federal and state return using TurboTax EZ.

If while preparing your return you enter any information that would prevent you from filing an EZ return, we will explain why and transfer all your information to TurboTax for the Web."

I kissed the monitor screen. I also closed my H&R windows. I wouldn't be trying them again.

Next I am asked to register. Pretty painless, though they did ask for my mother's maiden name, which I don't like. Why don't companies allow me to choose my own bit of secret information to prove I am me. I can think of much stranger info they could ask me... my favorite haiku, perhaps.

Everything after that was painless and easy. Turbo tax was extremely simple to use for the filing process. I didn't even mind having to type in my W2 information, though I dream of a day where it is uploaded instead. The state tax was an outright pleasure... it was all calculated automatically, and I didn't have to do anything except give the government my money.

Other points I appreciated:

  1. Along the top of the page was a clear display of where I was in the process, and how far I had yet to go.
  2. On the right were exactly the questions I might ask at at each stage. Twice I had the solution to the problem that was puzzling me.
  3. Any resource I needed was provided, including a link to adobe acrobat reader. No second guessing, no wandering about the net just to find my session had expired while I got the necessary software.
  4. Clear language, clear instructions, and frequent reassuring messages.

Often I've heard a lot said about usability and brand. I can say one thing after my tax adventures: if Intuit had accountants, I would go to them. As it is, I'm not letting H&R near my money... ever.