The Progress Bars in TurboTax Are Fake

They’re just there to make you feel a little bit better.

A few weeks ago I sat down and attempted to do my own taxes via TurboTax. Freelancing has made my taxes more difficult to do on my own. I had already scheduled an appointment with an accountant, but crunching the numbers in TurboTax was my own way of gauging my expectations. Financial surprises are no fun and I will always, always trust a professional or, in this case, a piece of software, over my own shoddy calculations.

After you complete a section in TurboTax, a progress bar shows up to assure you that the software is checking your numbers to make sure that they’ve saved you all the money that could possibly be saved. I’ve never given much thought to the progress bar and whether or not it’s actually doing anything of value — I just assumed that it was because it was there. It turns out that progress bar isn’t measuring anything at all. According to this piece in the Atlantic, I’ve fallen for a “benevolent deception.”

Writer Kaveh Waddell did his taxes early this year and noticed the quiet reassurance of the progress bar, dutifully checking his work. He wondered about its methods and after sitting down with a colleague to get to the bottom of it, reached a conclusion which makes sense, if you think about it.

We combed through the source code powering TurboTax’s website, and soon confirmed my suspicion: The animation was fixed. It didn’t appear to be communicating with the site’s servers at all once it began playing — and every TurboTax user saw the same one, which always took the same amount of time to complete.

The jiggling, jittering progress bars and dials and things you see in various programs and interfaces we use throughout our day to day are there simply to reassure us that the digital thing is functioning like its analog counterpart.

Benevolent deceptions can hide uncertainty (like when Netflix automatically loads default recommendations if it doesn’t have the bandwidth to serve personalized ones), mask system hiccups to smooth out a user’s experience (like when a progress bar grows at a consistent rate, even if the process it’s visualizing is stuttering), or help people get used to a new form of technology (like the artificial static that Skype plays during quiet moments in a conversation to convince users the call hasn’t been dropped).

This benevolent deception makes you feel better about entrusting your financial information to a software company that is not a person, but a thing. It’s also in Turbo Tax’s benefit to make the process seem complicated — their software makes it easy and costs money, but it reassures the consumer that they’re doing their taxes “right.”

But TurboTax has another incentive to keep the process from moving as quickly as possible. Its service is a friendly guide through the thorny jungle of credits, benefits, deductions, and forms that Americans must tromp through every year, and it’s in Intuit’s best interest to make that jungle seem as thorny and inhospitable as possible. The company regularly lobbies to keep the complicated U.S. tax code in place, and opposes proposals that would radically simplify it.

For the record — doing your own taxes can be very easy if you don’t have a lot of paperwork. TurboTax is helpful if you want to make extra, extra sure that you’re doing the right thing anyway, thanks to those progress bars and their gentle exhortations to take a deep breath and relax. Be complicit in the benevolent deception. It’s okay.

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