TurboTax wants to redesign your tax-paying experience

Other than the occasional math whiz or seasoned accountant, chances are you’re dreading the impending tax season. That’s why Intuit TurboTax’s 55-member in-house team is working hard to not only alleviate the age-old anxiety but to also help customers find enjoyment in the process. “We needed to think about emotions—how customers felt about our products and whether they take pleasure in using them,” says Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit.

To instill a company-wide appreciation for design and translate “design thinking” into “design doing,” Smith spearheaded a program called D4D (Design for Delight). The ethos encompasses all of Intuit, stretching beyond TurboTax, which is just one of several business and financial software products offered through the company’s Accountant, Consumer Tax, and Small Business divisions.

“Basically what we do at TurboTax is take this very complex system and make it digestible for everybody across America,” says Kurt Walecki, vice president of design at TurboTax. With a background in engineering, cognitive science, human-machine interaction, and a focus on designing for complex systems, Walecki leads a team tasked with simplifying the income tax system of the largest sharing economy in the world.

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The TurboTax design team has combined expertise in visual design, interaction design, editorial and content development, prototyping, and strategy. On the Intuit campus in San Diego, the team oversees marketing, packaging, communications, and customer support, in addition to product development. These experts continue to listen to customers as they refine TurboTax’s functionality and add new features every year that make the software more personable, intuitive, and easy to use.

When Walecki joined TurboTax in 2012, one of the first things he did was lead a two-day research excursion to get to know customers better. He closed down the offices in San Diego while all 700 TurboTax employees hit the streets to gather information from potential customers across a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Employees divided up into teams and interviewed 1,400 random residents in shopping malls and other public places. They asked a series of general to specific questions that eventually led to tax-related queries, which Walecki refers to as “pain points,” such as “how do you do your taxes?” and “what do you hate about doing your taxes?” The team analyzed the answers and used them to develop a customer profile.

Based on this newfound awareness of the customer, one of the changes to TurboTax starting in 2013 (designed for the 2014 filing season) was to move from a generic one-size-fits-all approach to a more customized interaction tailored to the individual. The following year they personalized the experience even more. “In the future it’ll be like your own personal TurboTax, and there’ll be no other TurboTax like it,” says Walecki.

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Moving beyond pop-up windows that provide reassuring explanations and details on specific topics, a new feature called “SmartLook” provides one-on-one video access to thousands of knowledgeable and friendly tax experts who can answer questions and guide you through the process while highlighting areas on your computer screen. After you submit your return, TurboTax offers advice for the upcoming tax year based on an analysis of the data you input. Some design decisions, according to Meghan Cartlidge, visual design strategist and team lead, are guided by Intuit’s graphic standards, such as the use of Avenir Next, a print- and digital-friendly sans serif type family designed by Adrian Frutiger and Akira Kobayashi. Avenir translates to “future” in French, an appropriate choice for a forward-looking company. A system of icons designed in 2013 for the TurboTax interface provides quick recognition of content areas, while an updated muted color palette introduces calming hues to create a pleasant environment.

Another ongoing priority for the design team is to continually improve the mobile experience. The software is cross platform and continuous across devices. You can start filling out forms on your desktop computer and pick up later on your smartphone right where you left off. TurboTax can also read data from a smartphone snapshot of your W-2 and then insert that information into the appropriate boxes on the form.

One of the core principles of TurboTax’s design is to “have deep empathy for your customer,” says Suzanne Pellican, vice president of experience design at Intuit. This approach, grounded in design thinking and user research, brings a new meaning to TurboTax’s tagline, “Taxes done smarter, together.”

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