Intuit Goes All Out to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma. Is It Working?

11/6/12Follow @wroush

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employees get to demonstrate their projects to press, investors, and fellow employees. At a 2011 Gallery Walk event (see video), I saw projects that clearly fit with Intuit’s existing businesses—for example, a mobile version of QuickBooks for Android devices—and others that were definitely in left field, such as an iPad-based check-in system for patients at doctor’s offices, and a fancy project-management app for iOS devices called Weave.

Now that the lion’s share of Intuit’s revenue comes from subscription-based online services, rather than retail sales of shrink-wrapped software, product managers need to change their definitions of what Intuit can be good at, Stansbury says. “It’s not about how many features you’ve introduced over the last year, but how delightful and sticky the experience is for the customer,” he says. “That might mean taking things out rather than putting things in. It’s about figuring out what the customer needs deep down—not what they say they need, but what their real problems are—and then coming up with an elegant technology solution.”

Complexity Is Enemy Number One

You don’t have to look far for products where Intuit has been changing things up by taking things out. After it acquired Mint.com in late 2009, Intuit put founder Patzer in charge of its personal finance group, home to Quicken as well as a pair of bill-paying services called Quicken Bill-Pay and PayTrust. “They told me, ‘Remember all those things you said were wrong with Quicken? Well, it’s yours now,” Patzer says.

Aaron Patzer, Vice President of Product Innovation at Intuit

Aaron Patzer, founder of Mint.com, is now Intuit's vice president of product Innovation.

Patzer was given total control over personnel decisions and the product vision for Quicken. Today he describes that situation as “an interesting challenge,” given that at age 28, he was the youngest officer in the company by a good 10 years—and that he was “totally unproven as the executive of a $100-million-plus business division with 100 people.”

Patzer’s first move was to redesign Quicken from the ground up, implementing what he’d learned at Mint.com about how to keep users engaged. “It’s always been my belief that, particularly around things in the financial world, complexity is enemy number one,” Patzer says. “Intuit’s biggest competition is all of the people who don’t want to manage their personal finances because budgeting is too hard, or understanding interest or rates of return is too hard. We need to boil that down to something that seems simpler.”

The old Quicken, where setting up a single user account required users to fill out nearly 40 screens of data, was far from simple. Patzer declared war on the bloat and cut the setup process to five screens. At every point, he challenged designers to justify the inclusion of extra screens, pop-up boxes, and form fields.

“If you had an input form asking for city, state, and zip code, I’d berate you for asking for three fields when you could have asked for one,” Patzer says. At the same time, he connected Quicken to more banks and ripped out the program’s purchase categorization engine, replacing it with Mint.com’s more accurate one. The ensuing products, Quicken 2011 and Quicken 2012, have won praise for their Mint-like simplicity.

Patzer gives Intuit a lot of credit for handing over its flagship product to one of its most outspoken critics. “It was a sign that they were consciously trying to bring in outsiders and infuse innovation throughout the organization,” he says. “If they had just wanted Mint.com’s customers and technology, they could have bought all of that and fired me and fired the team—and I wouldn’t have blamed them, given the stuff I had said about Quicken. Instead, they incented us well to stay on and stick with it.”

In June 2011, Patzer gained the additional title of vice president of product innovation, which means he now consults with groups across the company on simplifying everything from TurboTax to payroll services to QuickBooks. His job sounds pretty similar to Cook’s. He says he spends a lot of time meeting with product teams, reviewing their visual mockups, and coming up with easy, accurate ways to test beta designs on potential users.

There’s lots of room left for Intuit to improve its product lines, Patzer says: “I think the average person can do their taxes on TurboTax in 35 minutes, but it could still get better. The end goal is zero work.”

Filing Your Taxes In a Snap

While Patzer has been busy helping Intuit fix old products, others in the company have been working on brand new ones. One of the most fascinating cases I found in my reporting was SnapTax, a mobile app released in 2010 by members of Intuit’s TurboTax team in San Diego. For people with simple (1040EZ) tax returns, SnapTax could represent a big leap toward Patzer’s vision of zero work.

If you’ve ever used the Web or desktop versions of TurboTax, you’ve been through the tedious steps of transcribing data from your paper 1040 form into the program manually, one field at a time. SnapTax dramatically speeds up that process by letting you snap a picture of your 1040EZ form with your iPhone or Android device’s camera. Optical character recognition software grabs the data and automatically inserts it into the right fields on a digital form. After you answer a few questions to help the IRS verify your identity, you can e-file your return wirelessly from the phone, and even request that your refund be automatically deposited in your bank account.

SnapTax was born in the summer of 2009 as an unstructured-time project involving five designers and product managers from Intuit’s consumer technology group. “There were a number of us who were really attracted to the iPhone,” says senior product manager Carol Howe. “We pooled our time together to see if there was a more innovative way to do taxes on the device.”

The audacious goal: to help customers file their taxes in just 15 minutes. With regular guidance from Cook, the team started roughing out ideas. Before anyone wrote a line of code, there were many generations of paper prototypes.

“We would go out to coffee shops and just share the papers with customers and see what they thought of the concept,” Howe says. “Once we felt like we had something, we started sharing it with … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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