Intuit:
From Stories and Metrics

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How Intuit communicates and measures the impact of its design thinking program.

Intuit is a well-known and widely documented example of a company, which successfully incorporated design thinking in its transition to a more customer-centric corporate culture. Design thinking’s impact is perceptible throughout the organization. No one questions its meaning or value. Managers from other organizations though, especially those unfamiliar to design-driven innovation approaches, often ask for »proof« that it »will work«, or even demand upfront metrics to evaluate outcomes. On that score and knowing that the use of existing financial metrics for excursions into the unknown falls short of the mark, we decided to ask Intuit’s Kaaren Hanson (Vice President of Design Innovation, 2011-2014) and Wendy Castleman (Innovation Catalyst Leader) how they tackled the problem of evaluating their innovation program’s outcomes over the past seven years.


Background

One of Intuit’s main metrics has always been the NPS (Net Promoter Score). It actually was the very cause of the company’s engagement with design thinking. For many years the software company had focused on »ease« in order to increase NPS and drive revenue growth. It turned out however that ever such efforts changed nothing in the market. »Ease« was no suitable focus for differentiation anymore. Baseline experiences with direct competitors were basically the same, and more importantly, customer’s expectation levels regarding software had risen tremendously. Interactions with pace-setting companies like Google, Amazon or Apple were just more »delightful«. In this situation usability and ease were seen as a given and “Intuit was just no more amazing” as Kaaren Hanson admits.

 

Challenge

Against this backdrop and inspired by the successes of other design-driven companies the »Design for Delight« (D4D) initiative – a massive change program – was launched. Its goal was to develop and foster innovation capabilities, which allow Intuit to develop unique experiences, which can compete with best in class across industries just like. The program started in 2007 and changed, as Kaaren emphasizes, basically everything about the organization ranging from renewed passion about customers, ways of working, to layouts of buildings and many other things.

Design thinking cannot run by itself. Its introduction at Intuit was accompanied by lots of changes and caused reorganization steps basically everywhere. It affected organizational architectures and structures (e.g. team set-ups, buildings and space), processes and working practices (seamless integration with lean start-up principles whilst keeping appropriate conventional methodologies like Six Sigma). It reshaped resource allocations, reward systems and the enabling structure for organizational learning on Intuit’s workgroup-, knowledge base- and business layer  and many things more. The process surely was – and still is – all but frictionless. That’s why both, Kaaren and Wendy, confess that it takes lots of persistence and a »nudge by design« attitude  to make it really easy for people to embrace design thinking. Click the tabs to learn about three clever measures, they have set up to diffuse design thinking …

Often one of the biggest hurdles in organizations new to design thinking is the reasonable transition from ideation to prototyping and testing. Employees, who weren’t used to test their hypotheses, or particular aspects of a prototype, just don’t know how to operationalize their experiments. At Intuit teams may book an experienced catalyst (design thinking coach) into their projects but they can’t do that all the time. And recently the amount of experiments has multiplied. In order to make them more independent from direct catalyst support, the »Next Tool«, an easy to use canvas, has been developed. It is exercised at regular »Lean-in sessions« and guides them through testing their assumptions conveniently, even without prior instructions. It now is one of employees’ favourite tools when transitioning to execution.

Changing an engineering-driven culture is hard. Especially when that means pushing teams to get close to users and spent time with them. Intuit learned that not every employee is comfortable with approaching customers. It is not only arduous to figure out how to do it but also perceived as »embarrassing« or even »threatening«. Their reaction again was to make a virtue of necessity: They just established the »Friends of Intuit« program, which brings in customers from the local Mountain View area on a regular basis. Teams can book time with certain »customer profiles« and run experiments with them. The customers in turn are paid for their participation, although many appreciate this token of esteem without having any financial interests. After there was no excuse anymore to not engage with customers, interactions have tripled.

Another example shows individual initiative within a team to break resistance. The was challenge was to motivate payment engineers to comprehend and solve the right kind of questions and stop optimizing features within their current product paradigm. The problem however was that they not only were a bit hesitant but also really busy with their daily work. The last thing they were longing for were extensive field trips. This prompted Michele Marut (Intuit Senior User Researcher), to bring the field to them. She did some research and created a work environment, which resembled the essential set-up of a generic small business store space – and within it the payment experience. After the engineers immersed themselves in this convenient experience there were “huge AHA’s”, Wendy said. They suddenly were yanked out of »should environment« walking through the real experience, realizing those details that really matter. It led to an increase of motivation and several shifts of attention on what to work next. The space therefore is now permanent and it is not only used as a catalyst for the team but also for user tests.

 

Right from the beginning Kaaren and her team had top-management commitment without reservation. But running such a massive change process requires at least some metrics, outcome evaluations and justifications of actions, doesn’t it?

Wendy Castleman is quiet clear on the minimum prerequisites to even start discussing such matters: „People ask about our innovation program and design thinking all the time. Often they are just interested in the innovations. They want things that are going to be successful, which brings »them« to a new level but if they don’t actually care about their customer experience it isn’t gonna work. Before you go doing that you [have to agree on that, but] also have to understand what your company culture values and make sure you align to that first!”

From her experience it is important to be clear about these factors first. Otherwise it becomes hard to construct appropriate mechanisms of evaluation. She also points out that the financial impact of design thinking usually does not reveal itself immediately as it requires significant upfront investments too.


First measure activity then start to measure impact with what ever your company cares about.


This is why the Catalyst team had to be both, pragmatic and opportunistic. Pragmatic in terms of using the very simple initial measure activity, which just asked how many people across functional and business units are practicing design thinking already. Opportunistic in terms of attentively listening to what the company cares about, or as Wendy put it: “I don’t think there is any particular metric. If your company merely cares about commercial innovation to increase attraction on some marketing webpages that’s your metric to begin with.” This however, she also added, requires that you help them reframing the metrics alongside the design challenge at hand.

 

Problem framing = Metrics Reframing?

The first teams often started with the intention to use design thinking for merely changing marketing messages or tweaking value proposition dialectics without touching the core of the product and service experience. Even though this is too simplistic for Kaaren and Wendy, the catalysts had to start somewhere at least. They knew that during design thinking processes, repeatedly initial innovation intents change anyhow, so that metrics, which really matter, will emerge. Karen adds: “Often people want a measure from you that you can’t provide them with. But you can give them something else.” In her opinion it is important to give teams those useful surrogates that you are able to provide and explain why they are more meaningful. Such an approach takes into account that design thinking frequently is about detours. Although teams surprisingly often end up in improving the initial metric they have to be prepared for shifting the initial focus somewhere completely different but more relevant, which may render starter metrics obsolete. For an exemplary case see the box below.

 

Reframing: From Website Relaunch to SmallBusinessBigGame

The QuickBooksproduct team at Intuit wanted to improve the information architecture and visual design of their product web page. The main goal was to increase the conversion rate of the most important touchpoint which shall lead to more sales. They asked a catalyst for help and after having reframed their problem space they suddenly realized that what they wanted was merely tactical: Incrementally optimizing, tweaking numbers and analytics and worse, changing »features« of the page in terms of »how do we better present ourselves and our products«. This moment of dread lead to to a complete shift of the marketing of the page, which became much more human and centred around the business practices of their customers instead of being product-driven and feature-centered.

More importantly it was a major stepping stone in the birth of Intuit’s »SmallBusinessBigGame« initiative, which took customer-centric marketing to terrific extremes. Four small businesses had the chance to win a competition to receive an Intuit-sponsored 30-second television advertisement during Super Bowl 2014 or as Wendy put it: “We wanted to reframe how we’re interacting with customers. Sure, we still want to sell you QuickBooks, but first we want to help you grow and we’re going to do that by buying you a Super Bowl-ad. […] We significantly helped growing the winners business but also growing the almost winners business!” Ending up with such a great idea, as a by-product – and now part – of their website relaunch, made the whole team really happy. Their initial metrics became obsolete – for the time being …

Although it indirectly was a campaign for its own ends, the real care for customers behind it, clearly distinguishes the initiative from staged or planned ad campaigns in a similar manner. According to Wendy the »side-effects« were tremendous: free press coverage, heightened awareness and proud employees looking forward excitedly to finally see the customers they voted for in the game: “The metric that mattered to the team when they started and what they were asking for was »increase conversion«. The metric they ended up getting (e.g. customer and employee engagement) was something completely different: But everything felt much better about it. And ultimately … it increased conversion!”

 

Check out the SmallBusinessBigGame website

 


The metric they ended up getting was something completely different: But everything felt much better about it.


Managers and teams at Intuit therefore had to realize that when coming up with something new, there is no »structured« way of knowing what will happen or what adequate measures will be. Knowing valid metrics before is hard to impossible. This may be bad news for justifying decisions with superiors but for Kaaren this is rather a matter of good leadership and an understanding of innovation processes itself: “Executives are fine hearing that. If you say [upfront] I’m going save you $38 million, they will say: Oh, you just made that up!” Nevertheless Intuit’s management does care about metrics quite a lot and surprisingly the whole Catalyst team even loves them. How come?

 

From Stories and Metrics

Intuits approach is surprisingly simple, yet effective. Whereas most people (besides management and finance) don’t get very »emotional« about plain numbers, basically everyone in the organization enjoys a lived culture of company-wide appreciation and celebration of success and smart failures. People are naturally interested in other people. And it is humans who move metrics. This is why Wendy Castleman compiles a yearly »Innovation Catalysts Book« which showcases all the major success stories which had a significant financial impact. “Stories need metrics” she says “and we look at all the usual ones the company cares about: revenue, cost, profit, employee and customer engagement. But when you’re trying to pair it with design thinking it is important to show how you got here. Basically all stories are about that!”

When constructing the stories, she emphasizes, it thus is important to present and judge them in the in the context of their accruement. In other words, some stories may verifiably lead up to important key metrics like NPS but there are too many factors confounding the latter. Therefore it is up to the innovation catalysts to decide what makes sense to them once a story gets compiled. Both Kaaren and Wendy emphasize that basically all of them ladder up to high NPS and revenue at last. But linking them back to design thinking in an isolated manner is nearly impossible, said Kaaren: “You can’t separate it out and measure it per se. Once design thinking became part of the company’s DNA it’s even much harder to separate it out and say this caused that. It was easier in the beginning when there were just design thinking sessions where you could see the clear difference between people practicing it and those who don’t. But now it’s in the culture.”

She also explicitly emphasizes the fact that the permeation of a design-driven innovation practice never comes alone. At Intuit it was accompanied by the introduction of unstructured time, changes in building layouts, a new CEO and many more factors, which heavily influenced its likelihood of success.


We look at all the usual metrics the company cares about: revenue, cost, profit, employee engagement and customer engagement. Basically our stories are all about that!

 

Stock Price - Intuit - 2009-2014

Intuit’s stock performance in comparison to major indices (2009-2014)

 

“In the end,” she sums up, “you can’t just trace back design thinking’s dedicated impact on financial performance. You have to tell these contextualized stories because ultimately there are these long contributing factors in it.”

In her opinion it is more important that the narratives reflect the new Intuit way of doings things:
1) Having deep customer empathy;
2) going broad before going narrow, and
3) experimenting with customers.

It is this very design-driven culture that helps Intuit’s people in driving any metric they care about and measure – not the other way around. At the end of our interview both prod to first »evidence« which indicates that a design ethos in general may indeed have a profound impact on the bottom line – not only in their case. A recent study – which included Intuit in its sample – reported a stock performance advantage of »design-centric« companies of 228 percent over 10 years compared to the S&P index. This is great news, but for Kaaren and Wendy that is not as important as the empowerment of their people. For them it is just the logical consequence of the stories they produce and share.

This is how #designthinking gets measured at @intuit. #innovation #kpi Click To Tweet

Some Intuit Impressions

    Intuit: Welcome @ Intutit

About Intuit

Intuit Inc. is a provider of business and financial management solutions for small and mid-sized businesses; financial institutions, including banks and credit unions; consumers and accounting professionals. Flagship products and services, include QuickBooks, Quicken and TurboTax software, which simplify small business management, payroll and payment processing, personal finance, and tax preparation and filing. Furthermore the company offers  tax preparation software suites for professional accountants like ProSeries and Lacert. It also has an financial institutions division (Intuit Financial Services) which provides on-demand banking services to help banks and credit unions serve businesses and consumers with innovative solutions.


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The Authors

Jan Schmiedgen

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