How Intuit Brought a Personalized Experience Back to Tax Software

Chat bots are great at fielding tax questions. But what many users want is emotional support.

Written by Jeff Link
Published on Nov. 24, 2020
How Intuit Brought a Personalized Experience Back to Tax Software

Over the past decade, the F.I.R.E. movement has gained many vocal adherents. Popularized by financial bloggers like Mr. Money Mustache, a former tech worker who famously retired after just nine years in the workforce, along with websites like Financial Samurai, the movement is grounded in the belief that parsimony, a healthy lifestyle and close scrutiny of one’s personal finances can lead to financial independence and early retirement.

F.I.R.E. stands for financial independence, retire early, and though it has many interpretations, a common thread, as described in a blog post on Dave Ramsey’s website, “is to save and invest very aggressively — somewhere between 50 and 75 percent of your income — so you can retire sometime in your 30s or 40s.”

For Mr. Money Mustache, now 46, whose real name is Peter Adeney, it means extreme frugality, aggressive retirement savings and stock investment and “salads and barbells every day.”

Andrew Firstenberger, who is a design strategist and leader at Intuit, said the company keeps a close watch on the movement, as a core goal of Intuit’s AI-powered financial suite, which includes TurboTax, QuickBooks and Mint, is to help consumers and small businesses save money by managing it with greater self-awareness and efficiency.

These tools serve different ends, said James Helms, vice president of design and product. At the most basic level, TurboTax helps individuals prepare and file their taxes. QuickBooks helps small businesses manage payroll and billings and ensure financial compliance. Mint helps people track their personal spending and net worth. Yet they’re connected by a common thread of helping people, and businesses, manage their finances.

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The complexity of modern financial systems and the nagging stressors of people’s everyday lives have presented a challenge for the company, however. Analysis of people’s behavior on TurboTax showed a significant percentage were opening up sessions and quitting before they’d finished, either coming up against the limits of their financial knowledge or getting derailed in the face of extreme life hardships.

“And we started to realize that there were key things in somebody’s life, ‘Oh, my wife died this year,’ or ‘I changed states,’ or something that was just weird enough, just challenging enough that they were, like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to be able to do this myself,’” Helms said.

The design team wanted to keep these customers from leaving, so it started experimenting with possible solutions. When the company created a brick-and-mortar storefront in San Diego, designers met with tax filers and preparers to better understand their in-person experiences. The team tested different methods of software-based document hand-off — making it easier, for instance, for a filer to pass along a 1040 EZ to a tax preparer working remotely. The company launched Tada, a limited-run iOS application that allowed customers to speak to a tax preparer through an app or via a chat interface.

These early experiments culminated in the 2017 launch of TurboTax Live — a somewhat radical about-face for a company that had built its reputation around the power of artificial intelligence to eliminate taxpayers’ need to seek outside professional help. But in the context of the company’s design framework, rooted in the mantra “design for delight,” the move is far less surprising.

“Traditionally, you could do your taxes on your own using TurboTax. Or, you could go work with a CPA or a tax advisor, but not both.”

Diego Rodriguez is Intuit’s chief product and design officer and a former partner at IDEO where he worked on software and physical products for companies like Apple, Ferrari and Intel. He told me “design for delight” (as ironic as it sounds as a framework for tax preparation and bookkeeping software) is a natural outgrowth of design thinking. It relies on customer empathy, a broad lens for problem scoping, a strong bias for action, and prototype testing to simplify user interfaces and accelerate what he calls “speed to benefit.”

The approach also dovetails neatly with one of Intuit’s core aspirations: “never enter data.” This idea is so foundational to the company’s ethos it is frequently referred to by the acronym NED.

“Traditionally, you could do your taxes on your own using TurboTax. Or, you could go work with a CPA or a tax advisor, but not both,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the classic example of design thinking looking at a problem that is seemingly framed a certain way — like make better software or make a better CPA — and saying, actually, there is a bigger solution out there.”

For Intuit, that solution was to re-think the sovereignty of AI in its product lines and design more personalized interfaces that complement automation with live professional support.

We spoke with several members of the company’s design team to learn more.

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Live chat provides a new outlet for TurboTax customers.
Image: Shutterstock

Live Chat Cuts Through the Jargon

One feature of TurboTax Live is live chat support. The format will be familiar to anyone who has used the service to update or cancel a subscription, check on a service interruption, or vent their frustrations to a customer support agent when they’re caught in a seemingly insoluble bind.

“Maybe this starts out as ‘Can I help you with something?’ Or ‘I’ve got a question.’ And so you’re going back and forth,” Helms said.

Tax experts use the chat feature to help customers identify and upload documents, and wade through the obscurantism of IRS shorthand.

Firstenberger said the decision to offer live professional assistance on the platform was met with a fair amount of skepticism, at first.

“One of the interesting, almost emotional journeys on that front, from a design point of view, is that, to some extent, bringing people into the equation can feel like moving backwards a little bit, because we spend all this time automating.”

The idea of adding video chat was even more of an affront to the status quo. Yet, spending time with customers, particularly at the San Diego storefront, led to a new way of thinking.

One of the predecessors to Turbo Tax Live’s video conferencing feature was a capability called Smart Look, a help button that launched a video feed much like Zoom’s, except unidirectional. Through it, the customer could see the customer support agent, but not vice versa.

“To some extent, bringing people into the equation can feel like moving backwards a little bit, because we spend all this time automating.”

“And what we realized was that connecting with somebody over video was a huge experience upward for customers,” Helms said. “To know that there was a person back here.”

The success of the release raised new questions: “Could we do Smart Look inside our other programs? Is this actually universal?” Helms wondered.

User research suggested, resoundingly, the answer was “yes.” The company began building a stable of tax professionals — more than 2,000 as of fiscal year 2019 — who could function similarly to customer support agents, but also provide specialized tax knowledge and, more importantly, peace of mind.

Customers didn’t just want support gathering and distilling information, the research showed, they also sought the reassurance of trusted advisors who could validate their concerns. Were they really making the best financial choices? Were they staying above board when addressing the complicated, gray-area questions that inevitably arise when doing taxes?

“For all my life,” as one customer said, “when I had financial questions, I asked my dad. This is no different. I got to this point in my taxes — this complicated 1099-DIV thing that I didn’t understand. So I called my dad.”

The team found that face-fo-face video connection could be an effective surrogate for such conversations, bringing humans back into the fold.

And the strategy appears to be working.

In an email shared with Built In, the company reported that TurboTax Live grew its customer base nearly 70 percent in fiscal year 2020. By providing new ways for users to access experts throughout the filing process, first-year retention and conversion rates also increased. Moreover, almost 70 percent of new TurboTax Live customers received tax preparation assistance in the prior year, a higher percentage than TurboTax Online, suggesting the offering may be reaching a new subset of customers.

With the live support model in place, QuickBooks Live launched in January of this year. Though Intuit saw a dip in demand for its small business and self-employed offerings when the pandemic’s shelter-in-place orders shut down many small businesses, a spokesperson reported, the company is now seeing recovering trends across the platform. Six hundred experts support QuickBooks Live, which has seen 10 percent of franchise customers upgrade to a paid live bookkeeping service.

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TurboTax Live and QuickBooks Live provide assistance through a network of employees and independent contractors.
IMage: Shutterstock

The Platforms Are Set Up as Two-Sided Marketplaces

TurboTax Live and QuickBooks Live are two-sided marketplaces. Tax experts hired by Intuit can leverage Live to find new leads, set up appointments, reach out to customers and sign and file tax returns. Without the need to carve out personal brands, they also can work with potentially more diverse client bases, and do so on their own schedule.

“‘How you are feeling about doing your taxes?’ is among the first questions TurboTax asks its customers.”

On the flip side, Helms said, clients receive professional guidance. English- and Spanish-speaking agents initiate the conversation, upload documents, and field questions directed at the specific circumstances of a customer’s financial profile.

“This is a tennis match, right? It goes back and forth,” Helms said.

Automation implicit in the UX design reduces friction, particularly at the document upload stage, by scraping data from documents and applying it to text fields in the tax return, he added. That not only relieves the tax professional of clerical work — it supplies the software with information it needs to make high-confidence inferences that can be used to pre-fill much of the return.


A Customer Support Ramp Improves Efficiency

But not everybody needs such high-touch care, and that’s OK, Firstenberger said. In fact, it’s preferred. Some customers find the answers they seek in a FAQ or help tab. For those who need more guidance, there is a community support page, and if that doesn’t suffice, options for automated chat or live-person chat.

Intuit uses AI to identify when a customer is getting stuck. If they are dwelling at length on an item, a button asks if they need help and offers a few solutions, including an opportunity to connect to a TurboTax Live expert.

“It’s almost like a ramp, with graduating steps in terms of how much support a customer may need,” he said. “What will get them the help that they need as quickly as possible so they can get the job done. And probably go do something else besides bookkeeping or taxes.”

Getting to the “something else” quickly, and, ideally, with the biggest return possible, is where the delight comes in, Rodriguez told me.

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Personalization is key to giving customers the right amount of support.
IMage: Shutterstock

Personalization Is Everything

The Intuit Design System establishes standards for everything from the color palette, to the operation of buttons, to the way a user logs in and moves from screen to screen. Departments across the company use a one-page customer problem statement as a universal way to define a customer’s needs. And data integration among QuickBooks, TurboTax and Mint helps preserve customer financial information across platforms, while building loyalty in the parent brand.

But for all the consistency fostered through Intuit’s design thinking approach, it is personalization — recognizing that each customer has unique needs and concerns — that has steered the company toward products that balance automation with live support.

“‘How you are feeling about doing your taxes?’ is among the first questions TurboTax asks its customers,” Firstenberger said. “Not your income, middle name or filing status, but: ‘How are you feeling?’ It’s critically important.”

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