How storytelling makes change possible at the IRS

Designing a better taxpayer experience through data and user stories

Complicated tax codes, owed money, a dreaded deadline in April. When we think of the IRS, these are often the first things that come to mind.

Which is why it may feel surprising to learn that, even within an institution like the IRS, there are teams and passionate individuals working to make change and better serve the public.

We recently spoke with Kira Prin, a champion of human-centered design and master storyteller within the IRS. As a product development specialist focused on—which received over a billion visits last year—Kira and her team work every day to challenge our preconceived notions around what it’s like to file taxes, find information, and work with the IRS.

Their work is proving that change is possible, even in those places you may not expect it. And according to Kira, that change usually starts with a good story.

building your narrative

When Kira started working with the IRS back in 2017, the design team was brand new. It consisted of herself and eight other teammates. At that time, human-centered design was also a new concept for the IRS—and one that some stakeholders struggled to grasp.

“At the beginning, a lot of people were like, ‘If it’s not broken, why should we redesign it?’” says Kira. “We had to get really good at making our case to different groups within the business.”

To do so, they focused on storytelling—using a mix of data and stories from real people who used the website. With data, Kira and her teammates could tell a story about which parts of had the greatest opportunity for impact, depending on traffic, conversions, time spent, and other factors. Carving out those high impact spaces as focus areas, they’d then conduct research to speak with people who used them about their pain points and needs.

Weaving together what they learned from data and real people, they constructed a narrative about the state of and how different applications on the site might be improved through design. They brought the narrative to meetings, shared it in memos—all with the goal of gaining visibility and excitement around the work that was possible.

In each conversation, they’d anchor the opportunity back to the goals or mission of that particular stakeholder group.

“People want to know ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘How will this reflect on my team?’” explains Kira. “Sharing this upfront helps get them more excited. It helps them feel bought in.”

magic in user’s words

The first application redesign the team tackled was the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator. After it launched successfully, Kira added it to their storytelling arsenal—sharing the positive feedback they received from users to help other teams imagine how a redesign of their own applications might have an impact.

“If you want to get buy-in, you can’t just push your ideas. You have to show rather than tell. There's a real magic in using your user’s words to do that.”

Kira Prin

Kira says sharing quotes, feedback, and pain points directly from users has helped change stakeholders’ minds more than any other tactic the team’s tried because it builds empathy. It helps leaders and teammates put themselves in someone else’s shoes and see the product from their vantage point.

“It's hard to gain empathy if you don't hear from real users,” explains Kira. “And if you're not in the room with them, you may never even realize the things that are tripping them up.”

feedback, firsthand

Kira and her team also invite stakeholders to user testing sessions, where they can hear first-hand about people’s experiences using User testing is implemented at each phase of design and development to pinpoint common challenges and themes, and understand if the solutions they’re putting forth are effective.

For example, when the team redesigned the site’s Free File application, which helps people find options for free or discounted tax filing, they used testing sessions to illuminate gaps in understanding of certain tax-related terminology and acronyms.

“Of 23 people we talked to, only one knew what AGI [adjusted gross income] was. Some people didn’t understand what withholding meant,” shares Kira. “If people don’t understand what you’re talking about, they’re not going to understand how to use your tool or application.”

In response, Kira’s team adopted guidelines for how to use acronyms and added tool tips to explain what things like AGI meant. This was all in collaboration with stakeholders across the project, who had seen first-hand the need for change.

“That’s the beauty of talking with people and seeing them using your application,” says Kira. “It leaves you thinking ‘I need to do better by them.’”

writing the next chapter

Storytelling is a critical component of the design process. In developing a narrative around the work you do, it can help you prioritize goals, lift up themes, and solidify the what and why of your design more crisply.

It’s also your most powerful tool in bringing others along with what you want to do. Kira’s dedication to storytelling through user voices and perspectives has helped bring teams across the IRS on board with human-centered design. Since her story at the IRS began in 2017, her team has expanded to 22 people. They’ve launched more than seven successful application and website redesigns, with many more to come. The team’s scope of responsibility has also expanded across the IRS too, and now includes digital communications to taxpayers, design guidelines for across the organization, and more applications.

“People are kind of afraid of the IRS,” shares Kira. “But most people who work there are doing what I’m doing. They’re trying to better serve our users. There are hurdles along the way, of course, but we’re proud of the work that we do. One redesign at a time, we’re having an effect on a lot of people.”