Forms Follow Function?

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As my daughter poured over her first W-4, she wailed, "I have no clue what this means." "Welcome to the adult world," I responded, as a person who long ago gave up on reading all the instructions and just put a "0" in the proper line.

This exchange came to mind as Lacerte product manager Jorge Olavarrieta discussed Intuit's plans to replace the traditional tax organizer with a tax check list. Intuit's studies showed that's what both preparers and taxpayers really want, not organizers.

The same principle of missing the point in document design occurs in the W-4. I doubt that many taxpayers can make any sense out of the menu of choices designed to produce a number of withholdings to enter on the appropriate line.

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The exercise is pointless: add this, deduct that and stand on one foot while you do it.

The only thing that number means to them is how much is taken out of their checks. "Do you want your money now, or later?" was the way one of the Intuit folks characterized the goal of the W-4.

Intuit found the use of organizers fell into the same category-they don't serve the stated purpose, or perhaps, they don't serve the purpose for which most of us would like to use them to make the process easier.

Every year, preparers send them out, with better luck in getting forms filled out when sent in electronic format, but nonetheless, not really accomplishing what the exercise is supposed to. Vendors and accountants end up with a woefully low percentage of how few actually fill them out and consoling themselves with the thought that the Internet will probably increase response rates.

My accountant doesn't use an organizer. I suppose my wife, who brings in a pile of documents stacked in the order in which the information appears on form 1040, is our organizer, and apparently fairly unusual. But I've never been able to shake the sense that taxpayers view organizers in the usual sense of filling in numbers with "Why am I doing all this work when I'm paying you?"

Besides, Intuit's studies found taxpayers don't understand organizers, because they are designed for accountants.

The most important lesson was that isn't what most accountants want. They want clients to bring in all the paperwork, and if possible, in an organized form, the way my wife does. Taxpayers want to be told what to bring, not be asked to perform data entry.

There are a lot of changes under way in tax preparation, especially in terms of data entry. I'm putting my bets on the end of the organizer as we have known it as one of them.

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Editor Robert Scott also writes "Consulting Insights," a free, twice-monthly electronic newsletter that addresses issues concerning the consulting and reselling market. It's insight with an attitude. If you want to subscribe, put the following in your browser address line: subscribe.webcpa.com. You can also visit us at www.accountingtechnology.com

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