Intuit: How Design Drove Its Turnaround

How design sparked a turnaround at Intuit
Ysa Perez for Bloomberg Businessweek

Over the past six years, Intuit, maker of TurboTax and other accounting software, has placed design at the center of what it does—a shift it credits for its turnaround. Intuit Chief Executive Officer Brad Smith and Kaaren Hanson, vice president for design innovation, explain.

When did you know something was amiss?
Hanson: Back in 2007, 2008, we realized that we were no longer any better than our competitors. At the same time, mobile was really coming into play. So we knew we needed to change. When we look at any product at Intuit, we think about three factors. We expect to create a benefit that people care about. It needs to be easy. And it needs to evoke positive emotion. To do that, we went after three strategies. First of all, we made sure everybody in the company had a visceral experience of what great design was like. We started with our most senior leaders. Brad had his team at an off-site, and we had them each bring in something that delighted them. And we had them talk about what made that experience delightful to them—that’s when we locked in on how we want our customers to feel.

And the other two strategies?
Smith: The second is the triad. We have the designer, the engineer, and the product manager working together. It used to be that when we said we were going to be design-driven, the engineers said, “Well, here’s the technology constraints.” The product manager said, “Well, here’s the thing we have to solve,” and then gave it to the designers and said, “Make it pretty before it ships.” Now the designers are a part of it, Day One. And the third part was we needed superstrong designers. So we hired some.

Any instructive mistakes?
Hanson: Well, when we started off, we thought it was going to be fantastic. But after a year of thinking that design is finally going to be able to help change the company, absolutely nothing changed. What we hadn’t realized was that talking is worthless. The gap between knowing and doing is tremendous. It wasn’t until we created a series of coaches, called the Innovation Catalysts, that design became a part of our DNA.

At one stage, 70 percent of your executives had new direct reports. Was that hard?
Smith: You always have some who resist change, but 7 billion hours a year are spent inputting information into software to do your taxes, and for half of Americans, the single biggest check they’ll get is their tax refund. So our vision is to eliminate 7 billion hours of tax prep drudgery and get to the money as fast as possible. Then we put one more constraint on: It needs to happen on a mobile device. All of this turned out to be a grand challenge.

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