Users Change Corporate Mindset

by February 17, 2005

A recent talk by Scott Cook, Chairman of the Executive Committee at Intuit, did an excellent job of highlighting how user research practices can shift corporate mindset and introduce huge growth opportunities for companies.

Scott described how, following the success of Quicken (tripled growth in each of the first 3 years), Intuit ran customer surveys to understand how their product was doing. Three years in a row, this process yielded an unexpected result: users reported 50% of their Quicken use occurred in the office. The company was convinced, however, that Quicken was a home product and repeatedly discarded this data point. It wasn’t until they decided to dig deeper and observe actual user behavior (through “follow-me-home” studies) that they realized what the market was telling them: small businesses had a big need for easy accounting.

From this insight, Intuit built QuickBooks and released it in 1992 at twice the price and half the features of competing software. The product marketing was, to quote Scott, “awful” and the software shipped with a bug that erased data users spent days entering. This of course, led to tech support “hell” as angry customers fought to get their data back.

One would assume, of course, that this led to quite a dismal product launch. However, Quickbooks actually sold better than anyone expected- it surpassed the market-leading software three-fold and ultimately pushed the majority of its competitors out of business. How? Scott credits the direct observations of end user behavior during Intuit’s “follow-me-home” studies. Seeing first-hand how users understood and did accounting led to the creation of the “first accounting software without accounting”. The product was successful because it met a real observed user need in a way users could understand and appreciate. Competing software used accounting terms and practices prescribed by accounting experts that did not work for the average small business owner.

Scott summed up this example by stating, “Don’t ignore the unexpected. If you don’t understand something, that is the market speaking to you.” The larger point was that to create a breakthrough product, you need a mindset change. Most often the change is not your customer’s but your own. When Intuit stopped thinking of Quicken as a home product, they were able to create QuickBooks, which now accounts for 95% of the company’s revenue.

As one might guess, this experience has made Scott a believer of: watching people work, discovering unsolved problems, and solving those problems. In particular, Scott highlighted the credibility of in-home observations; pointing out that in-home studies allow real behaviors to be observed in a way usability labs and surveys can’t replicate. As an example, Intuit’s usability lab testing (using a sample tax return) of TurboTax was going quite well. But when the company did in-home studies of customers using their personal tax returns, a large amount of previously unknown issues came to light.

This philosophy of “trusting behaviors more than words” is enabled through direct ethnographic research. It allows design leads to empathize with user needs and understand user behaviors and, as a result, create great products that meet real market needs.