In 1982, Siegel+Gale helped introduce a whole new level of simplicity to U.S. taxpayers when we created the 1040EZ. Almost 30 years later, the IRS approached us with another challenge—simplifying the confusing jumble of notices taxpayers receive every year. At the time, a U.S. citizen could expect to receive any one of more than 1,000 different letters created by 120 different authors and generated by more than 40 different systems. All of this was costing precious time and money, making it difficult for people to pay their taxes correctly and efficiently. It was time to simplify the organization’s correspondence and relieve the public’s mounting frustration.
We started by auditing all notices sent by the IRS, which revealed that differences between the documents usually reflected the internal IRS structure—not taxpayer needs. Many letters lacked a logical framework and consistent voice, and their production did not use available technology. To tackle this complex system, we first simplified 37 notices that could serve as models for 70% of all correspondence. With our proprietary SimplicityLab™ research tool, we tested these against the original documents and found significant increases in how well people understood the content. Armed with these promising results, we developed a modular system to standardize the layout, navigation, content and tone of all IRS notices—making them both easier to create and easier to understand.
Our research showed significant increases in the number of taxpayers who said they would pay the IRS either in full or more quickly as a result of our simplified documents. “The differences between the old and new notices are like night and day,” said Douglas Shulman, IRS Commissioner. This work was honored with the Grand Prize ClearMark Award and the Revised Document: Public Sector Award, both from the Center for Plain Language.