Lessons from Tax Day 2015: How the tax sites fared

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Every April millions upon millions of taxpayers rush to file state and federal taxes before the 15th, and as with every other aspect of day-to-day life, filing taxes has become digital. The IRS website alone receives three to four times as much traffic in early spring as it does in the off-season, and this gigantic spike is indicative of what most tax-related websites experience at this time of year.

With this in mind, Dynatrace put its expertise in digital performance monitoring into action surrounding tax day 2015. We wanted to see what could be gleaned from the performance of applications and sites that prepare for this peak event all year long. We monitored recognized tax prep vendors and related sites leading up to the April 15th deadline to see who held up best under the strain of increased traffic and transactions to provide the best digital experience for end-users.

The graph below sums up the results, indicating that small, up-and-coming sites like expresstaxrefund.com, olt.com and jacksonhewitt.com outperformed better-known sites. H&R Block and TurboTax, while providing consistent availability, were sluggish by comparison to the newer up-and-comers.

Efficient processing of requests and high-performance -- even under peak demand -- is crucial to keeping customers loyal and satisfied. Financial services is an extremely competitive arena online. So, while SEO dominance is important, performance plays a critical role when consumers are really deciding whether a company's walk lives up to their talk around customer service and digital performance.

Performance is also important from a brand equity and loyalty vantage point. Only the vendors who provided a rock solid user experience will see their users return next April. Studies indicate that users will only wait about three seconds for a site to load before switching to another option. Companies that made their users wait this season will see them using a different service in 2016.

Tax vendors weren't the only players with a stake in the game. Dynatrace also monitored the websites of 10 large State Revenue Departments to check on their performance, as these sites also experience a major traffic spike in early April as residents log on in search of filing rules and instructions. In this performance challenge, North Carolina and Illinois ended up with the best performance while Florida and Pennsylvania wound up on the bottom of the heap.

Since State Revenue Departments are not profit-focused organizations, many may think performance is less of an issue as they do not have the same financial stake in the game. However, the reality is that a slow state tax site harms the state government's reputation. And, while states aren't concerned about losing business to other tax vendors, their fear is that taxpayers could abandon the digital experience altogether. Taxpayers who can't find or access the information they need online will tie up phone lines and call centers, and create longer long lines at physical offices. This is not only frustrating and more time-consuming for taxpayers, but it also costs the state more money to process filings. Serving citizens with a great digital experience online is much less time and resource intensive.

So how can tax and financial planning vendors, as well as government agencies make sure they ace the next tax-season test and keep their customers happy? Here a few easy steps every organization can use to bring their digital performance to the next level and deliver grade-A experiences:

1) Cut the Clutter

Applications and websites in every industry, including financial services, are sometimes guilty of the bad habit of packing in all kinds of "bells and whistles" (videos, animations, pop-up chats, etc.) in an effort to be as eye-catching as possible. Unfortunately, this noise actually backfires more often than not as most of these so-called "enhancements" are often hosted on CDNs or driven by third-party applications. Thus, performance problems with these widgets can have a profoundly negative impact on the overall digital experience, and can be difficult to diagnose and understand without a robust application performance management (APM) strategy.

Organizations that are serious about improving the digital experience can often benefit most by considering what their site doesn't need rather than what to add. You might be surprised how simplifying rather than adding more features and gimmicks can really make a positive impact. There is little point to continually adding functionality that falls on the periphery of a site's main purpose if it comes at the expense of overall performance. Most of these odds and ends can end up being more trouble than they're worth if you look at the big picture and the mission end-users are really on when they come to the site.

2) Understand the need for speed

Thanks to the Google effect, user expectations are sky high today and only getting higher. Users simply will not tolerate a slow site. Whether they are accessing a tax preparation or filing service via their desktop, laptop, tablet or phone, they typically will wait three seconds and no longer. In the digital world, first impressions are lasting impressions and sites only get one chance to perform. A site that slows down or bugs out under pressure loses users, and often does so for good. Those who abandoned a site in 2015 will not be back in 2016.

3) Focus on the user

When preparing for a peak event, it is easy to run broad sampling tests and come away with a vague impression that a site is fine. However, organizations that don't make an effort to see things from the end-users' perspective don't have an accurate idea of what these users actually experience. Sampling provides only a rough idea, but there is huge risk in oversimplifying -- especially since customers' experiences vary depending on the devices used and myriad other variables.

Organizations that take digital experience seriously focus more on implementing APM solutions that provide visibility from every end-user's perspective, 24x7 through the entire network architecture. Settling for a few snapshots is not enough. You need insight into every single transaction. Utilizing this insight is the only way to ensure a site is delivering a truly stellar digital experience to users regardless of the device, time or place they're working from. This is particularly important in today's omni-channel environment, where one customer journey can involve smartphones, tablets and desktops, and the expectation of quality experiences across web, mobile web and mobile apps.

There is no better indicator of the impact the digital transformation is having on our daily lives than the fact that even something as mundane as filing taxes has fundamentally changed. The process is different, our expectations are higher and our sense of urgency is unrelenting. Digital has already revolutionized the way we shop, bank, travel, vote, and now the tidal wave has saturated how we prepare and file our taxes. For organizations that want to survive in this digital world, focusing on performance and delivering superior customer experiences that don't tax their users will bring greater returns.

Jones is a Field Technical Evangelist at Dynatrace.

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