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How Intuit became a pioneer of 'delight'

May 10, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Intuit chair Bill Campbell, left, and Chief Executive Brad Smith discuss the company's approach to design and innovation.
Intuit chair Bill Campbell, left, and Chief Executive Brad Smith discuss… (Intuit )

Say "delight" in Silicon Valley, and most people will immediately think of Apple. In a Column One story today, I note that much of the valley's current obsession with the word can be traced back to Steve Jobs' embrace of it. 

But there's another company in the valley that has also come to embody the word: Intuit. While the Mountain View maker of financial software such as TurboTax and QuickBooks hasn’t quite had Apple-like success (but then, who has?), its growth in recent years has been remarkable enough to give the delight movement a big credibility boost.

STORY: Cold, hard data meets squishy delight in Silicon Valley

In 2007, Intuit adopted "design for delight" as its product development philosophy. The process began under then-Cheif Executive Steve Bennett and accelerated under Brad Smith, who has been chief executive of Intuit since January 2008.

"A great first use experience is the front door to powering growth for a new or existing product," Smith wrote recently on a LinkedIn post. "Don't let all the hard work that goes into creating a great product be sabotaged by not putting in the time and effort of designing a delightful gateway."

In some ways, it's not surprising that Intuit would join Apple among the ranks of delight pioneers. Intuit's current board chair, Bill Campbell, was a longtime friend and confidante of Jobs. Campbell worked at Apple in the early 1980s, later served as CEO of Intuit from 1994 to 1998 and has been a board member at Apple since 1997.

Under Smith, the company has worked relentlessly to embed the concept of delight deep into its culture. That effort has been spearheaded to a large degree by Kaaren Hanson, vice president of design innovation at Intuit.

"You've got feel it," Hanson said. "It can't be in your head. It's got to be in your heart. It's got to be in your gut. And we want to put it in our products."

Smith and Hanson began delivering this message through frequent conversations with employees at all levels of the company. Smith also dramatically expanded the size of the team of innovation catalysts working under Hanson who could swoop in and help teams throughout the company work the delight concept into their product development efforts.

The tricky thing in teaching the concept, of course, is that delight is inherently subjective. It's hard to measure and quantify. You just know it when you see it. Or feel it.

Still, Hanson offers three guidelines: The benefit of a product or service should be something a customer really cares about. It should be simple. And it should evoke a positive emotion. 

Instead of marketing research or management presentations about product ideas, Intuit conducts 10,000 hours of what Smith calls "follow me homes" each year, in which employees observe customers at home or at work. The goal is to understand their pain points, their needs, things customers may not recognize themselves. 

From there, Intuit teases out ideas, rapidly prototypes and puts them into the hands of users to get feedback.

Smith and Hanson credit this approach with helping Intuit catch up quickly in the mobile and cloud computing spaces. For instance, the number of people using Intuit's online, hosted services has increased from 17 million in 2008 to 45 million in 2012.

"Design for Delight is grounded in deep customer empathy, going broad with ideas then narrowing with possible solutions and finally, rapid experimentation with customers," Smith told Forbes. "Collaboration, customer-driven innovation and Design for Delight allow us to continually reinvent ourselves to deliver for the future and provide our customers any time, anywhere access."

As I noted, delight can be hard to measure. There are "in-the-moment" ways that psychologists can measure emotions, like studying pupil dilation or moisture levels on the skin.

But Intuit also tracks something called "Net Promoter Scores" or NPS. Basically, the company asks someone how likely they are to recommend a product or service to a friend. Intuit says it is always seeking to increase that NPS across its products.

Another big shift the company has undertaken as a result is to screen prospective employees for empathy. Can they truly understand how another person is feeling? This has become particularly important for people hired into customer service areas, where the company says it's important not only to solve issues but leave the customers feeling good about the experience. 

The results, so far, have been impressive. From $21.58 in early November 2008, Intuit’s stock has climbed to $59.89 in midday trading on Friday. Annual revenue has increased from $2.978 billion in 2008 to $4.151 billion in 2012.

No wonder that so many others are looking to understand and imitate Intuit's approach.

Hanson is flattered to see so many other companies adopting delight. Though she also remains skeptical about how genuine some of these efforts really are. 

"I think it's good that more companies are trying to delight their customers," she said. "But frankly, it's difficult. And if you're going at it from the head, you're not going to get it.

"It's a matter of who is actually talking and who is actually doing. I suspect there are more people talking about it.

"For Intuit, I think the proof is in what we produce. And the challenge is to keep that burning feeling alive in our employees." 

For more about Intuit's approach to product design and innovation culture, watch this recent conversation between Smith and Campbell:

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