Intuit's secret is user-led innovation

Capturing solutions: how observation founded Intuit

Intuit’s Asia-Pacific operations continue the company’s tradition of observing and learning directly from its customers.

When Brad Paterson and his team from Intuit visited a suburban Melbourne bakery recently, they noticed the delivery drivers were having issues with invoicing customers while they were on the road. The bakery goods were being dropped off successfully enough, but the invoicing procedure was paper-based, which increased both handling and administration and also delayed the time to payment.

Paterson, the Singapore-based Asia-Pacific general manager for online accountancy vendor Intuit, proudly recounts that a ready solution was at hand: Intuit’s mobile app, which he says solved both problems and created a new way of engaging with customers.

Paterson’s visit to the Melbourne bakery was no one-off. Although not all trips have such a ready-made outcome, Intuit’s Australian staff have made several hundred such visits to the premises and homes of their clients since the company set up business here in 2013. Even the company’s US-based global CEO has been on these visits when he has been in Australia.

It’s an approach that the firm has followed from its earliest days.

Follow through

Called “Follow Me Home” and “Follow Me to the Office”, the visitation programs are designed to observe customers in their workplaces – not just to understand how the company’s QuickBooks accounting package fits into their businesses, but also to understand more about the businesses themselves. This, in turn, helps Intuit innovate and develop its suite of products.

“It helps us develop solutions that will help [customers] overcome pain points.” Brad Paterson, Intuit

“It might sound creepy, but customers love it, because they see we are taking a keen interest in their business,” says Paterson.

“It helps us develop solutions that will help them overcome pain points.”

This approach is in line with recent developments in innovation thinking, which are focusing more and more on end users. 

Researchers such as the MIT Sloan School of Management’s Eric von Hippel argue that users themselves create or aid in a substantial number of innovations as they interact with products and modify them to better meet their needs.

More software firms are now using “ethnographic” techniques, where researchers study the activities of a particular group of people in real time. It’s an idea borrowed from anthropology.

The output from Intuit’s visits include a repository of notes, which are available on the Intuit staff’s shared drive. Then there are the hundreds of videos taken during the outings, which are archived and watched at a later date.

Professional development: Creating and sustaining a customer-focused organisation

Innovation catalysts

Intuit claims significant results from this approach. The company’s QuickBooks accounting software had its beginnings from watching small business owners struggle with applying for and obtaining financing, largely because they were unable to articulate their cash flow positions to potential lenders.

According to Paterson, the program of visits is also an example of Intuit’s “customer centric” culture. Other practices reinforce that culture: for example, a formal process for recognising employees who show the most empathy to clients on the Follow Me visits.

Customers have not been the only ones to benefit. Along with growth has come recognition for the staff environment that Intuit has created. The company was rated by as the third best company with under 100 employees to work for in Australia in 2015, following eight years on the list of Asia’s best employers.

The approach doesn’t seem to have hurt Intuit’s revenue as it has ramped up its Australian operation, set up in 2013 and now employing more than 80 people. 

Australia is the NASDAQ-listed company’s fastest-growing new market. Of those 80-odd staff, about 25 per cent have been trained as “innovation catalysts” to act as coaches to in-house teams and to customers, with the aim of helping them fulfil unmet needs.

Localising the culture

Intuit in Asia spans not just Australia, but also Hong Kong, India and Singapore, the company’s regional headquarters. Just as the accounting products themselves are about 15 to 20 per cent localised for each market, so the company actively localises the culture.

This goes beyond giving meeting spaces at the Sydney office quirky Australian names, such as the Vegemite, Minogue or Bondi rooms. Intuit’s Brad Paterson says the company recognises that each of the cultures in which it operates has very different approaches to work and the celebration of success.

In some cultures, celebrations include family members and weekend-based activities; others focus on food, while in others success is marked with parties and night-life.

As general manager of Intuit’s Asia-Pacific business, Paterson is based in Singapore and has a regional remit, but he was in Australia at the end of June to help staff celebrate their growth story. Unsurprisingly, the local choice was a big Australian-style party.

How observation founded Intuit

In their landmark 2009 Harvard Business Review article, “The Innovator’s DNA”, researchers Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen listed five “discovery skills” that they argued distinguish the most creative executives: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting and networking. 

To exemplify the skill of observation, they related how Intuit founder Scott Cook started his financial software empire. Cook hit on the idea for Quicken financial software after two key observations. First, he watched his wife’s frustration as she struggled to keep track of their finances.

“Often the surprises that lead to new business ideas come from watching other people work and live their normal lives,” Cook explained. “You see something and ask, Why do they do that? That doesn’t make sense.” 

The second observation came when a buddy arranged for him to have a sneak peek at the Apple Lisa computer before it launched in 1983. After leaving Apple headquarters, Cook drove to the nearest restaurant to write down everything he had noticed about the Lisa. 

His observations prompted insights such as building the graphical user interface to look just like its real-world counterpart (a chequebook, for example), making it easy for people to use it. 

So Cook set about solving his wife’s financial-tracking problem – and grabbed 50 per cent of the market for financial software in the first year.

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