Designing for Harmony

How Design-Driven Innovation Helped Intuit Get Its Groove Back

In 1982, Scott Cook was watching his wife sit at the kitchen table struggling to balance the family checkbook. Personal computers were just becoming popular and he had seen them transform work at Procter and Gamble; yet here was his wife fighting to do something challenging for humans but trivial for computers. In a flash of insight, he realized that software could replace pencil-and-paper accounting for everyone. This aha moment set him on a path of user-focused innovation.

Cook met programmer Tom Proulx at Stanford. With partial funding from Cook’s father, the pair not only founded Intuit, which improved many a math- and time-challenged life, but also gave another gift to the software industry that they borrowed from the consumer packaged goods industry: usability testing. They had users try their new software, Quicken, while they ran a stopwatch. Then they’d tweak the software and retest until processes that took an hour were reduced to a quarter of that.

Cook also pioneered a process at Intuit called “Follow Me Homes.” The CEO himself would go to software stores and when someone purchased a copy of Quicken, he would ask if he could follow the customer home and watch her use the application. This type of user research was useful because it allowed him to see customers using Intuit’s software in real-world environments.

By using these nascent user-centered design methods, they were able to meet the expanding needs of their user base and claim over 90% of the small business accounting software market.

Intuit went public in 1993 and then acquired Chipsoft, giving them the product that would become TurboTax. The now ubiquitous QuickBooks came out the following year.

As Intuit evolved, it acquired companies that added payroll, online payments, checks and supplies, online tax preparation, and more to its product line. This expanded the offerings but created a fragmented company where each product had its own division with separate management, design, and–in some cases—offices. A noticeable lack of focus prevented them from innovating as a company; their user-centered design DNA was disappearing. Was their size and rapid growth diluting their design-driven culture?

Solving for the innovator’s dilemma

In 2000, Steve Bennett became the CEO of Intuit. Fresh from GE, Bennett’s goal was to see Intuit act more like a grown-up company. His efforts were good for the bottom line–Intuit’s sales increased $1.7 billion during his seven year tenure–but acting like a mature company appeared to take the company even further away from its scrappy, innovative roots.

Over a decade after those early guerrilla user testing days, Intuit recognized it faced the “Innovator’s Dilemma”–the company was doing a good job of supporting their core products but they weren’t having any success creating new products and they weren’t keeping pace with the changing software industry.

A major change for the industry was the move to the software as a service (SaaS) model, often referred to as “the cloud.” This was a reinvention of the software publishing model that had customers pay a subscription fee to access software online rather than buy a copy for their desktop. SaaS meant companies could push out updates to their customers faster. It also made many things easier for customers, including remote access to work and simplified installs.

The cloud created opportunities for hungry young startups who were moving into Intuit’s space. Many of them were building their customer base from former Intuit users or from other startups looking for a slick, integrated user experience that Intuit wasn’t providing. After enjoying almost total market domination, Intuit finally was beginning to face some competition.

Years of incremental additions and piecemeal changes had turned QuickBooks into an awkward application with a dated interface. Intuit had developed its mobile platform late in the game, creating an inconsistent experience. If Intuit wanted to stay ahead of these new competitors–and the market–they would need to return to their roots.

The cloud also created opportunities for hungry young startups who were moving into Intuit’s space. Many of them were building their customer base from former Intuit users or from other startups looking for a slick, integrated user experience that Intuit couldn’t provide.


With Intuit’s market share, they probably wouldn’t see a decline for another ten years. A different company might have felt that was good enough. A different company might have been satisfied with just making money from their core products. A different company wouldn’t have tried to pull off a project as risky as Harmony.

Inspiring innovation by democratizing design

In 2007, Scott Cook had another important insight: He realized that he’d never be Steve Jobs. He’d never be that lone visionary who was single-handedly driving design and innovation at his company. What might have discouraged a different man inspired Cook. After getting advice from one of his design contacts at Procter & Gamble, Cook led a one-day program focusing on what he called Design for Delight (D4D).

His managers applauded in all the right places–Cook was the founder, after all–but there was little enthusiasm.

Undaunted, Cook had a consulting associate professor at Stanford named Alex Kazaks give a second presentation. Kazaks started with a ten minute PowerPoint presentation followed by an exercise where the managers worked through a design challenge that involved prototyping, feedback, iterating, and refining.

This time, the workshop inspired his managers and excited them about the power of design. This lesson–hands on workshops are better at engaging people–would help set the foundation for how Intuit would teach D4D moving forward.

To bring D4D to Intuit, Cook turned to a gifted in-house design director, Kaaren Hanson. Hanson, in turn, put together a team of nine people to help her. In making her selections, she was not only looking for user-centered design thinking but she also needed people interested in working together to solve problems. She wanted them to be outgoing and, most importantly, they needed to be passionate about sharing their skills and experience. If they were going to make a difference, they had to empower other people.

This core team would become known as the Innovation Catalysts. They would lead workshops with Intuit’s employees, educating them on the power of design. Any manager at Intuit could request an Innovation Catalyst to help them drive design and experimentation on their projects. And they were responsible for teaching new Catalysts. The initial group of nine would grow to over 200.

Hanson was not only looking for user-centered design thinking but she also needed people interested in working together to solve problems. She wanted them to be outgoing and, most importantly, they needed to be passionate about sharing their skills and experience.


Cook’s attempt to bring innovation to Intuit appeared to be a success. The Innovation Catalysts were teaching innovation and inspiring the rest of the company to think from a design perspective. Intuit was creating an environment that actively supported and encouraged innovation. The true test for the company, however, would be if they could produce successful new products.

In 2007, Bennett stepped down and the current CEO, Brad Smith, took over. Smith identified that Intuit had an innovation gap: Only four out of 50 products introduced in the past decade had grown to $50 million or more in revenues. Following in Cook’s footprints, Smith set out to bring innovation to Intuit’s products.

Taking it to the next level

In 2013, five years after Smith took the helm, Intuit was seeing the benefits of innovation and producing successful products, but to stay on top they would need to keep evolving. The company was still a collection of walled-off products and, although innovation was the goal, it wasn’t the reality in many departments. A focus on profits and products had watered down their culture of user-focused design.

Design-driven innovation was no longer a radical new approach. The industry—and Intuit’s competitors—was also using these processes to build successful businesses; many of them had learned their methods from Intuit. And although Intuit had successfully extended their experience to mobile, they had yet to take advantage of the cloud, a space their competitors were already at home in.

Smith announced a radical and risky new plan: Intuit would move away from being a desktop software company and move toward becoming an SaaS company.

They would do something they hadn’t done in more than a decade: a complete redesign of their flagship product. The centerpiece of this new Intuit would be called Project Harmony: a completely new QuickBooks Online, rebuilt from the ground up as an open and integrated platform. From that work, Harmony’s team would then create a new design vocabulary and apply it to QuickBooks Online and every other product Intuit offers.

This wasn’t Intuit’s first time at the rodeo: they had introduced QuickBooks Online in 2001. At the time, the technology was not up to the task of translating the desktop environment to the browser, so the experience suffered. Their customers were familiar with the desktop application and wary of change, and the ones who did try the new service were generally unhappy with it. Like any true innovator, Intuit would incorporate what they learned into the new product and move forward.

Klaus Kaasgaard and Dan Wenikoff

Klaus Kaasgaard and Dan Wernikoff during a design review.

Heading up Project Harmony was Dan Wernikoff, senior vice president of Intuit’s Small Business Group, and Klaus Kaasgaard, vice president of experience design. Wernikoff provided the executive backing so the project wouldn’t get derailed, and Kaasgaard acted as the project’s main advocate and development lead. Working together, the two sketched out the roadmap for Harmony, including a set of principles to guide the project:

  • Each product represents the entire ecosystem, so each product needs to deliver ease, benefit, and delight during a customer’s initial experiences.
  • Each product is designed individually but maintains the look and feel of the ecosystem.
  • Each product is designed in the context of its role in the ecosystem: understand the context in which each product will be used and create systems that respond intelligently when it changes.
  • Make it easy for a user’s data to follow them and move between products.

Design principles are often seen as fluffy and end up getting skipped or glossed over in projects, but the Harmony team couldn’t afford to skip any details for such a critical project.

It turns out that they made the right call. The design principles unified, inspired, and guided the developers. And when the team was in the middle of the warring desires of different business groups, the principles reminded everyone of their goal.

The centerpiece of this new Intuit would involve doing something they hadn’t done in more than a decade: a complete redesign of their flagship product, QuickBooks.


The Harmony team lived up to their name: They designed one Intuit experience despite many business units. But Harmony wasn’t just about changing Intuit’s products. It was also about changing Intuit’s culture and the way that their employees work and relate to each other. It was about strengthening the user-focused design culture that had brought Intuit its early successes. These changes were reflected in a powerful set of decision criteria, including:

  • Intuit’s core products will work together; any product that acts as a customer’s first point of contact will introduce the customer to the entire ecosystem.
  • When there are common jobs or tasks across products, Intuit will use common designs and components. It may not be the best for one, but it will be the best for all.
  • Share data across teams: If a product captures it, that product needs to enable other products to use it.

For Harmony to be successful, it had to work across all of Intuit’s products. And for Intuit to be successful, all of its employees would need to work together too.

From now on, there would be one team with one goal, and it would be design-driven.


Win together

At the core of this change is Harmony’s central design team, who act as advocates and caretakers of the Harmony design language. The Harmony team works with Intuit’s business units to insure that the designs are consistently implemented across the entire company.

The core team also evolves the design language. And, to help support their efforts, the design and development teams were reorganized to create an environment that encourages and supports creativity and excellence.

…not only does XD have a seat at the table, in many cases–like the project I lead–we’re driving the process.
— Dorelle Rabinowitz, Intuit Experience Design

Dorelle Rabinowitz
Dorelle leads a brainstorming session with the Harmony team.

According to Kaasgaard, the key to making the Harmony team a success was giving them license to change what needed to be changed and the encouragement to do it. Like the Innovation Catalysts before them, the Harmony team would bring Harmony–and the mindset behind it–to the company.

If Harmony succeeded with QuickBooks Online, the redesigned product would prove the value of the new design system to the rest of the company. If it didn’t, only one product would be affected. It was still risky, but there was no way to avoid it if Intuit was going to keep up with the industry.

To succeed, Harmony had to do three things:

  • Develop a scalable UI framework and the underlying services and infrastructure that make up a modern technology platform.
  • Unify its disparate interaction models and interfaces into one coherent ecosystem across the various products.
  • Institute a completely new way of working for Intuit’s designers and developers that placed the needs of the company above the needs of the individual business unit. From now on, there would be one team with one goal, and it would be design-driven.

Although it’s a relatively new term, design-driven innovation comes from classic design methods: observing people, understanding what their needs are, and making prototype solutions until you discover the right products and services.

By staying in the sweet spot of what people need rather than what they ask for, a company can evolve with its customer base. And it works. According to the Design Management Institute, design-driven companies have outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 by 228%. Companies like Apple, Herman Miller, IBM, Nike, Procter & Gamble, and Walt Disney have consistently shown that focusing on your user experience is very good for your bottom line.

Early customer response to the redesigned QuickBooks Online has been positive, as seen in a gushing review by Bill Murphy of Internet Accountant:

…this QuickBooks Online is the most visionary change I have seen out of Intuit in ages; heck it is almost ‘Apple-like.’

Others, used to the desktop version of QuickBooks, have left less flattering reviews in which they complain about changes in functionality and appearance. Time will tell if these complaints are a reaction to the fact that things have changed or if they are the result of actual issues with the updated interface.

Of course, one of the advantages to the SaaS model is that Intuit can quickly roll out updates to its products, giving them the agility they need to react to the market as well as to user testing and experimentation. Intuit’s investors are happy: Intuit’s stock recently hit an all time high.

The Harmony Ecosystem

The cross-platform view of the Harmony ecosystem.

The Harmony team isn’t done yet. Intuit’s designers will continue to evolve their design vocabulary, improving the customer experience for both QuickBooks Online and the rest of Intuit’s products.

Intuit is a 30 year old startup where all 8,000 employees are entrepreneurs, and it’s everyone’s job to create, invent, and improve their customers’ lives.


Innovation is everyone’s job

Brad Smith describes Intuit as a 30 year old startup where all 8,000 employees are entrepreneurs, and it is everyone’s job to create, invent, and improve their customers’ lives. The most powerful tool they have to do this is user-centered design, which allows them to improve their customers’ lives and create delightful experiences. As long as they hold on to that–regardless of what method they wrap around it–they’ll continue to be successful.

Instead of waiting for a lone visionary to arrive, Intuit chose to teach design to all, and make the entire company responsible for innovation. The Innovation Catalysts empower and train their coworkers, and those employees find the insights that makes Intuit innovate. The Harmony team provides the consistent design that maintains a uniform experience across Intuit’s products and platforms, speeding innovation and integration.

Scott Cook’s famous kitchen table sits in Intuit’s Cook Campus Center. The walls around it are covered with whiteboards, and anyone can sit at the table to meet, brainstorm, or work. Intentionally or not, the table is a symbol for user-centered design and how it improves people’s lives. And everyone has a seat at the table.

Scott Cook's kitchen table

Scott Cook’s kitchen table holds a special place in Intuit’s culture.

Posted in Design Principles, Workplace and Career | 7 Comments »


  • Philip Dana

    December 29, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    Awesome article about transformation, technologies, and customer-based solutions that Delight. Cheers, Philip Dana – connect with me on

  • Mark

    January 7, 2015 at 5:08 pm

    Scott Cook must be humiliated at how Intuit treats its customer base these days.

  • Sandy

    January 9, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    It is great to hear the story behind the product! This product and company has helped millions of people make money and businesses achieve success. It is an unattainable goal to have done all this with out complaints. But complaints if taken properly will make a company only stronger.

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    May 14, 2015 at 5:07 pm

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