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Intuit's Big Refresh

How a large company rethought its approach to product design in an attempt to bring back its startup spirit.
April 14, 2011

Intuit has built a software empire based on products such as Quicken, QuickBooks, and TurboTax. But by the middle of the last decade, what started out as an innovative startup had become a huge organization with 10 divisions, and management was concerned that the company’s ability to design exciting new products was drying up. “Our innovation pipeline had narrowed and our success rate wasn’t good,” says Scott Cook, who cofounded Intuit in 1983 and now is chairman of its executive committee.

Instant gratification: The new SnapTax app grew out of a new approach to product design at Intuit.

Cook and other executives decided they needed to change company culture to better foster innovation and creativity. Since then, they have radically changed the ways the company designs products. The fruits of that change are starting to come to market: they include new software such as SnapTax, an iPhone and Android app that prepares and files a United States 1040EZ tax form on the basis of a snapshot of the user’s W-2.

The first step in changing Intuit’s design process was to stress that the process was important. Regular employees were trained as “innovation catalysts” who worked with teams on better strategies for assessing what customers wanted and coming up with ideas for how to provide it.

The company tried several methods of counteracting the habits that big companies slip into. For example, Cook says, it had become common for an Intuit team manager to suggest a single solution that a team would pursue. Designers weren’t always getting much feedback from customers, and they were often deeply committed to an idea before they did much to test it. That left teams struggling to force an idea to work when it might have been more efficient to reject it after a simple test.

Intuit’s new approach encouraged teams to come up with more ideas at the outset of a project, instead of getting attached to the first one. The company encouraged deeper and more frequent testing with customers, going beyond mere surveys to observing how customers behaved at home and at work.

Cook says he hopes this combination of strategies gives employees a greater sense of autonomy in designing products. The goal is for teams to feel that they themselves are determining which ideas deserve company resources. “Great innovators don’t work for people who tell them what to do,” he says.

He believes Intuit’s new approach is helping the company experiment more freely with applications for mobile devices, which he thinks give companies an incentive to rethink their approaches to software. For one thing, they require simpler designs, and that simplicity can influence bloated products for PCs or the Web. Also, teams can take risks, since mobile applications often represent new territory with no existing customers to alienate.

SnapTax, for example, revolves around a trick of optical character recognition that has to work just right. Users would be delighted to do their taxes just by photographing their W-2s, but the results would be deadly if the app was confusing or failed to work.

The team that designed SnapTax built three storyboards for the app on paper before building anything in software. Carol Howe, senior product manager for TurboTax product development, says that every two weeks the workers took the designs to Starbucks and Chipotle stores, where they believed they would find members of the app’s target audience. They would talk to customers to get quick reads on what was and wasn’t working.

As they refined the design, they began to let users play with a simulated version of the app. Alan Tifford, principal interaction designer, says that for about eight weeks, the team would discuss the state of the project on Mondays, run through possible changes on Tuesdays, narrow down a plan on Wednesdays, build all the prototype screens on Thursdays, and bring users in for testing on Fridays. By the end of that period, the team had gone through more than a dozen possible layouts for the home screen alone.

In particular, Howe says, the designers watched how users were touching the screen and how they tried to execute the steps the app called for. For example, when photographing a W-2, people held the document in the air or took pictures of multiple copies. Seeing this persuaded the team to build the app with better instructions for how to get a clear image.

“We wanted to ensure that if we were going to make a splash, it would splash big,” Tifford says. “It was eight weeks of nonstop work, but it paid dividends.” Once SnapTax hit the app store, it consistently received five-star ratings. Now that more than 500 reviews of the current release have piled up, it still has a full five stars. The app is free to download, but filing the tax return that it prepares costs $19.99.

“What’s happening at Intuit is an astounding example that other companies can follow,” says Nathan Shedroff, a pioneer of experience design who chairs the MBA program in design strategy at the California College of the Arts. He praises the company’s internal education efforts and careful approach to winning over senior and middle managers. Many times, he says, companies take the opposite approach—publicly declaring their intention to shift before much internal change has taken place. “The change is happening from the inside out,” he says, “which is a longer-term, more successful strategy than the more typical approach of going from the outside in.”

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