IRS Computer Fiasco Is Tip of Software-Glitch Iceberg

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Computers are so difficult for so many people that some experts are starting to raise red flags. The problem, they say, is not the people; it's the machines and, especially, their software. And it's time to complain, loudly.

"Let's not take this anymore," says Charles Kreitzberg, president of Cognetics Corp., a Princeton, N.J., software-usability consulting firm. "Let's really raise our voices and say things have to change."

"It's time to get angry," adds Ben Shneiderman, head of the Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory at the University of Maryland in College Park. "We need to make the issues more subject to discussion." The latest evidence of computer-design failure comes courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In testimony before Congress, the federal agency responsible for collecting taxes admitted that several pieces of its $3.4 billion modernization program "do not work in the real world." But its problems merely reflect what is happening in other corporations and government agencies. The IRS problem "is a large-ticket failure, but I've seen several comparable failures," says Tom Landauer, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado and author of a 1995 book, "The Trouble with Computers." "The people who build these things are very smart. {But} people do not devote frequent enough effort to find out what the system is supposed to do." As a result, the systems "work," but the operators have to be quasi-engineers to figure them out, he adds. Mr. Landauer estimates that at least during the 1980s and early '90s, hard-to-use computers reduced the nation's productivity gains by one to two percentage points a year - a huge drag. In only one year since 1987 has per-worker output officially risen more than 1 percent. But critics say the official numbers understate productivity. About 35 to 40 percent of the programming efforts in an information-technology department are spent reconciling duplicate data sitting in various company databases, estimates the Gartner Group, a consulting firm in Stamford, Conn. …