A few years ago, I was walking through a parking lot in Mountain View, CA, when I bumped into Scott Cook, founder of Intuit, a software firm known for blockbuster financial applications like Quicken, QuickBooks and TurboTax.
While we were chatting briefly, I mentioned that I was a Quicken user. Leaning towards me, Cook’s eyes narrowed. “Really?” He said. “What can we do? Good? “
It’s been more than two decades since that encounter, but the exchange has always stuck with me.
In my experience, tech executives are good at telling you what their companies do well but are not interested in getting feedback.
Intuit has built a reputation for “customer obsession” while building nearly 10 billion companies in 39 years, so when I had the opportunity to interact with Nung Ho, the Vice President of Artificial Intelligence, I jumped at the chance to see how that obsession could happen in real life. To find out what works.
The problem is ownership
Ho joined the company in 2014, shortly after earning a doctorate in astronomy from Yale. While in school, he adopted Intuit’s Mint financial management software.
“I liked it, but there were a lot of things I didn’t like,” he said. “Why can’t it be smart?”
When Intuit interviewers asked why he was applying for a job there, he replied bluntly, “I hate Mint.” So he was hired to come in and make it smarter.
Since then, Ho has been working on ways to add artificial intelligence to both customer experience and how developers choose features that go into products.
Much of the process involves observation.
In-product surveys garnered millions of responses, and the company has developed algorithms to comb through them and look for patterns that point to problem areas. Software-in-service delivery gives designers the luxury of peeking into customers’ shoulders to see what features they are using and how.
“We’ve heard customers say they like a feature, but what they do every day can be completely different,” Ho said.
Intuit’s culture combines design thinking and “falling in love and not solving problems,” says Ho.
Once the new features are fixed, “We bring in customers and talk to them – both customers have and we don’t.” There’s also room for what Ho calls a “leap of faith” that customers haven’t specifically asked for.
Designing for fun
Intuit has always been involved in software development, which the company calls a “design for pleasure” phase, where prototypes are developed and tested with customers.
The design team includes people who specialize in research methods. Then, borrowing from academic research, estimates are made for each new feature and tested on customer samples, so that the mixture is changed frequently to avoid the introduction of bias.
The solution is built with simplicity as a guiding principle.
“We always create the simplest model possible at the beginning to make sure there’s a ‘there’,” Ho said.
Designed for simplicity can be a challenge for developers who support features rather than forms.
“If people say they’ve created the perfect model, we’re sure they’re solving a problem and they’ve thought about how to measure success,” Ho said. “It’s not how great your technology is.”
Customer feedback can be a splash of reality.
Ho recalls testing a feature developers created two years ago that enabled small business clients to create forecasts a year ago to help budget and employees.
“When we took it to customers, they said they didn’t need a one-year forecast; Three months was good, “Ho said.” The granularity we gave them was not even needed. It’s shocking for our team. “
Adding a feature to TurboTax that matches customers with tax experts also won simplicity.
Experiments have shown that a simple rule – the customer and the tax specialist were in the same situation – was effective in creating a match like a complex algorithm.
“You can do extra optimization without any reason,” Ho said
Intuit cultivates customer obsession from day one.
As each new employee goes through customer-driven innovation and designing training for fun, refresher courses are always available. In addition, managers are responsible for scoring customer satisfaction.
At 71, founder Cook is a multi-billionaire and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Nevertheless, he maintains a daily presence at Intuit, where he is available for problem-solving sessions with staff at any time.
“Everyone gets super-bright from a session with Scott,” Ho said
I’m not surprised at all.
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