At a time when everything from ride sharing to food delivery can be done via app, it's no surprise that many Americans are preparing their taxes online—and no company has figured out the online filing space better than TurboTax, the popular do-it-yourself digital tax software.
Even as other companies like H&R Block and TaxAct have started offering online services, TurboTax has held a huge lead. It had 60.5% market share last tax season (by contrast, H&R Block had only a 9.2% market share in the digital space). As of 2015, TurboTax had over 30 million users and is often ranked above its competitors as the easiest to use, due to its user-centered design.
That's thanks mostly to Kurt Walecki, who heads up experience design at Intuit, the software company that makes TurboTax. When Walecki joined the company in 2012 after a 12-year stint at Nokia—where he was most recently head of design and portfolio strategies—the company was coming off of several years of slowing growth. Intuit's executives thought that reversing the trend might start with stronger design. At the time, the department lacked cohesion, with designers reporting to several different departments, and the packaging, applications, and online product all needed a refresh.
"They realized design is key, and it hadn’t been fostered like it needed to be," says Walecki. "So when I came on, all the designers started reporting to me. I went about first stitching together a great end-to-end experience and then improving on that experience."
The first thing Walecki set into motion was a massive ethnographic research effort called Ignite. In 2013, the San Diego-based company completely shut down for two days and all 700 employees loaded onto buses and headed out into different parts of the city. They surveyed a total of 1,400 residents of varying socioeconomic statuses about how they do their taxes—an effort to get to know the customers with whom, as a software company, Intuit's team hardly ever had face-to-face interactions.
Divided into teams, employees approached people on the streets, in malls, and in other public places with a 10-page booklet in hand, and ran through a series of questions. They started off general ("What do you do?" "What do you do on your time off?") and steadily got more specific ("What apps do you use?" "How do you do your taxes?").
And unsurprisingly, asking people "what do you hate about doing your taxes?" yielded plenty of answers. After two days of field work, Walecki and his team sifted through the data and identified the major pain points. What they found was sometimes surprising. "There were people who, when they go through major life events or changes in their lives, they tend to go to a tax store instead of using our software," says Walecki.
That was the case with Abraham, a 26-year-old working three jobs who was about to get married. Even though he was living paycheck to paycheck, he had no problem spending $200 to $300 at a tax preparation store so he wouldn't have to deal with it himself. Abraham became what Walecki called their "True North," or the universalized individual that the team was designing for.
When Walecki came onto the TurboTax team in 2012, the interface design only allowed for a one-size-fits-all mode of filing. This meant that each user would have to go through the same series of questions pertaining to several different tax situations and answer each one, whether it was relevant to them or not.
"There were literally tens of screens that didn't need to be answered," says Walecki. "You would get 'Hey, are you a farmer?' when you’ve already said 'I’m a waitress in New York City.' You don’t need to ask that question."
Yet one of the takeaways from the Ignite event was that even so-called "simple filers" usually have unique circumstances—multiple jobs, a recent move, a change in marital status—that make it hard to build one set of questions around.
So, starting in tax year 2013 (filed in 2014), TurboTax rolled out a "click here if this applies to you" option that catered to different situations. In tax year 2014, it started testing out a new system that it launched across all platforms this year: a 10-button "tile" that allows you to click on topics that are relevant to you and the questions within that topic without leaving that screen. It asks questions like "Are you going to get married?" "Are you going to get a job?" "Are you moving out to either own or rent a home?" and "Do you sell stock?" right when you start to file.
The answers to those questions then inform the rest of the process, making it possible to skip the parts irrelevant to you and save time filing.
In addition to making the service more personalized, the designers also wanted to make the experience more user-friendly. "People who use TurboTax are across the entire spectrum of people in the U.S.," says Walecki. "It’s not Uber and Airbnb where the design is meant to appeal to Silicon Valley people. This is trying to appeal to people in the Midwest who read USA Today and go to Target.com and Walmart."
This was something they solved for through a huge refresh of their design language. The design of the site itself got a facelift, complete with a more modern aesthetic, a brighter color palette, and flat design elements that also aim to be approachable. The idea was for the site to look crisp and clean but also accessible to TurboTax's target audience—which happens to be everyone in America.
Being accessible also meant focusing on the voice and tone of the site's copy. "We looked ourselves hard in the face between 2013 and 2014 and said, 'Man, we’re like one step away from the IRS,'" says Walecki. "Our language was very credible, but it was very tax-y and we thought this is not easy for anyone to understand deductions and credits and schedule fees."
Now TurboTax users are greeted with instructions that actually sound human ("Great, let's start by getting to know you") and cheered on with little encouragements ("Nice job filling in that missing info!"). When asked about a death of a dependent or spouse, the response is consolatory rather than cold and robotic. Walecki says the design team took a cue from the narrative of video games like Monument Valley and League of Legends to help people "uplevel through the experience."
"If you think about gaming, it's not only the story of minutes. It’s the story of hours and story of days and weeks," he says. They wanted to give people that same level of engagement throughout two or three sessions, for the users who stop and pick it back up later, just like a game.
So, what problems still remain for Walecki and his team to solve? The past three years of research and design have laid the groundwork for the two major points of focus in the future: expanding mobile-first user experience and sharpening personalization features.
This year, one of the biggest advantages TurboTax has over its competitors is total continuity across all platforms. Customers can start out filing at work on a desktop, pick it back up at home on a tablet, and finish it up in the grocery line on a phone. Users can take a photo of their W2 and allow TurboTax to scrape the data, and people can now pay their refund through Apple Pay. Next year, Walecki says they'll continue to hone the mobile experience—taking better advantage of your phone's camera and allowing you to submit photos of your W2.
Walecki also says they'll continue to roll out an "explain why" pop-up that users can click on if they're unsure about something like a specific deduction or requirement. Eventually, he wants these answers to be custom-tailored to your particular situation. So, for example, if you're wondering why you don't qualify for a certain deduction, Walecki wants you to be able to click the "explain why" button and have the answer be specific to you (i.e., "Because your school year ended before this tax year") rather than general.
"Next year we’re working on ways to use getting to know who you are to create a better, more personalized experience," says Walecki. "It will be like your personal TurboTax, and there will be no other TurboTax like it."
*Correction: an earlier version of this story said in 2015 TurboTax had over 20 million users. They actually had over 30 million users. The article has been updated to reflect that.