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Interview with Kurt Walecki, VP of Design at Intuit

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformations

November 6, 2017

Thanks to the leadership of Scott Cook—formerly Intuit’s CEO and now Chairman of the Board—Intuit has always been a customer-centric company that really listens to its customers. In the company’s early startup days, Cook instituted Intuit’s Follow Me Home program, in which Intuit employees hung out at stores that sold packaged software until a customer bought Quicken, Intuit’s personal-finance software and, then, the company’s flagship product. An Intuit employee asked the customer if he could follow him home to see whether he had any difficulty installing the application. He would then observe the customer as he unpacked and installed the software and note any causes of frustration or confusion.

Through this program, Intuit learned what aspects of their software needed improvement. Cook’s goal was to make it easier for people to balance their checking account using Quicken than with a paper checkbook. By observing their customers, Intuit learned that people were using Quicken to handle bookkeeping for their small businesses, so they created QuickBooks for that market. From the very beginning, Intuit has done user research both to understand how customers are using their current products and to identify customers’ unmet needs, allowing them to introduce new products to the market to satisfy them.

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Today, Intuit is at the forefront among companies that have fully integrated User Experience into their organization. Recently, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Kurt Walecki, VP of Design at Intuit, who is shown in Figure 1. Kurt leads the TurboTax Design Team and reports directly to the GM/SVP of Intuit’s Consumer Tax Group. Before joining Intuit, Kurt worked at Nokia Mobile Phones in various UX leadership roles, over a 12-year period. He was head of advanced innovation projects and Nokia’s strategy and product portfolio. Previously, he was an Associate at Booz, Allen, & Hamilton where he led the design of command-and-control user interfaces for automated systems. Kurt prepared for his career in User Experience by earning a BS in Cognitive Science at California Polytechnic State University, in San Luis Obispo; then an MS in Human-Machine Interaction from the University of Southern California.

Figure 1—Kurt Walecki
Kurt Walecki

About Kurt

Pabini: What formative experiences have been most important in making you an effective leader?

Kurt: From my early teens to my 20s, I raced 8-to-70 foot sailboats in National Championship events. The experience of racing—whether with a team or individually—helps to empower a Pygmalion effect, in which people perform to the level of the skipper’s expectations for the crew. An effective skipper, like an effective leader, demonstrates clear communication, instills a winning competitive drive in the crew, makes quick decisions, and doesn't let a loss impact the team’s drive to do better next time. I learned a lot about leadership from my experiences in sailing, which I still apply in my current role.

Pabini: What do you view as your strengths—your superpowers?

Kurt: Taking something very complex—for example, the US income tax system!—and making it digestible and, dare I say, fun!—for everybody across the United States.

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UX at Intuit

Pabini: You joined Intuit as Vice President of Design for TurboTax nearly five years ago. What drew you to the organization?

Kurt: The incredible culture. After researching the company and talking with employees, I was sold. Along with the fact that Intuit sets the standard as the best in the industry.

Pabini: How would you describe the character or personality of Intuit as an organization?

Kurt: Design thinking pervades Intuit’s culture and manifests in our products through the UX team’s skill and dedication to their craft. We strongly believe that great design starts with having real empathy for the people we serve. Building on this principle of deep customer empathy, Intuit created Design for Delight (D4D), which formalizes our approach to design and experimentation, provides a common framework for building great products, and enables us to be truly design inspired.

Pabini: What attributes do you look for when hiring people to join your team? Are there unique attributes for leaders, designers, or researchers?

Kurt: Curiosity and humility are important—to see whether a candidate has a desire to understand our customers. I also gauge a candidate’s listening skills. Plus, I look for expertise in their chosen craft or talent, whether that of a world-class designer or an exceptional innovation leader who is passionate about delivering the best products to customers.

Pabini: What is Intuit’s mission? How does user experience factor into it? To what extent is the organization aligned behind that mission?

Kurt: Intuit’s mission is to power prosperity around the world. One way we’re doing that is by unlocking our Intuit ecosystem, which enables us to provide added value to customers, partners, and the self-employed by enabling connections between Intuit’s products—including QuickBooks, TurboTax, Mint, and ProConnect—and those of third-party developers. As part of our journey to accomplish this strategic goal, we are refreshing a company-wide initiative called the Intuit Design System (IDS). Over the past year, the IDS team has worked with designers across the company to create the shared elements, components, patterns, widgets, and flows that will form the connective tissue of our emerging One Intuit ecosystem.

Pabini: Going way back to its startup days, Intuit has had a history of being a user-centered organization. How is the company evolving today?

Kurt: Design thinking and building customer empathy were part of Intuit’s original business plan over thirty years ago and are still core to the way we do business today. We started with and are still guided today by the fundamental belief that great design starts with having real empathy for the people you serve. Intuit’s D4D strategy isn’t just for designers or product teams. Through its Innovation Catalysts program, Intuit trains and organizes design-thinking coaches who help implement D4D throughout the company.

Pabini: What do you see as the role of User Experience in product development?

Kurt: For Intuit’s ecosystem to be successful, the design of our products is critical. We need to create cohesive experiences that build trust with our customers as they move throughout the Intuit ecosystem. This is why our coders and designers work hand in hand with one another.

Pabini: Is User Experience taking on a more strategic role at Intuit?

Kurt: Yes, we believe it’s important to create a personal, emotional connection so we can deliver an awesome experience to customers during their very first interaction with the product. First impressions are crucial to increasing the likelihood of our customers using our product again.

Pabini: How has the participation of Design in business decisions impacted business outcomes for Intuit?

Kurt: Design has been critical to the success of our products. One example is the complete redesign of TurboTax, which led to significant growth in TurboTax Online units, increased market share, and an improved Net Promoter Score (NPS).

Pabini: Describe the UX research and design process at Intuit.

Kurt: The Intuit Design System is one example of how we apply design thinking to everything we do. We innovate through our Design for Delight framework, which enables everyone to design great products for our customers. Design for Delight includes the following principles:

  • Deep customer empathy. Empathy allows us to get inspired and embrace the unexpected. Gaining a deeper understanding of our customers gives us the inspiration to innovate new solutions for them—solutions that solve their unique painpoints.
  • Go broad to go narrow. To get to one great idea, you need a lot of ideas. The trick is to go for quantity first, then to be intentional about narrowing down the ideas to the best one.
  • Rapid experimentation. Through rapid experiments, you can make better decisions that are based on actual user behaviors.

Pabini: What are your key areas of responsibility at Intuit?

Kurt: I lead the design of all TurboTax products and services, including TurboTax online, tablet, mobile, desktop, and native mobile applications for both iOS and Android. An ongoing priority for the design team is to continually improve the mobile experience. Part of leading the team entails collaborating with other business units and functional groups such as Software Development, Product Management, Marketing, Quality, Care, and Data Analytics. Plus, I co-lead the effort to create the Intuit Design System, whose objective is to accelerate adoption of our One Intuit ecosystem and drive cohesion, elevate design quality, deliver great experience design, and improve customer satisfaction

UX for TurboTax

Pabini: In 2016, Intuit redesigned TurboTax to make it more user and mobile friendly. In 2017, Fast Company named Intuit one of the 10 Most Innovative Companies in Design, largely on the basis of that effort. What future improvements do you see for TurboTax to better meet the needs of users?

Kurt: Creating an even more personalized experience. We are working toward a future when you’ll have your own personal TurboTax, and there will be no other TurboTax like it. Beyond further personalization, another ongoing priority for the design team is to continually improve the mobile experience.

Pabini: In what ways are you personalizing TurboTax to make its user experience better serve the needs of users? What role does artificial intelligence (AI) play in implementing personalization?

Kurt: The more a user works in TurboTax, the more the solution gets to know the user and provides an increasingly personalized experience. TurboTax tracks and analyzes financial data and automatically transfers existing customers’ personal information and tax-return data from prior years, including W-2 wage and salary information from their employer. TurboTax then adapts its user experience based on that information, slashing any screens and questions that are not relevant to the user’s specific tax situation. In addition to financial data, Intuit tracks and analyzes clickstream data—such as when a user clicks a field, uploads a W-2 photo, or clicks a drop-down menu—collecting and logging that information for future reference. Intuit aggregates this data to extract insights and display power dashboards that show how TurboTax customers are using the software, allowing the software to personalize the user experience.

AI plays a huge role in all this. For example, AI in TurboTax simplifies the tax-return process. We use AI to determine whether someone should go through a standard or itemized-deduction process. If people do itemize their deductions, TurboTax uses data analysis and machine learning to identify and recommend the appropriate deductions.

Imagine, for example, that instead of your having to add every donation you made to Brown University manually, TurboTax automatically finds all of them for you.

Pabini: Thanks for taking the time to tell me about your work at Intuit, Kurt. I’m sure our readers will be interested in learning about the role of Design at Intuit. 

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Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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