“Design for Delight”: 2018 Knowledge Continuum Speaker Leslie Witt of Intuit Explains How Customer-Driven Innovation and Empathy Build Competitive Advantage

Witt discusses how design thinking informs her work and the role of empathy in bettering the end-user experience.

Leslie Witt

Leslie Witt

Leslie Witt, Head of Design for Small Business at financial software company Intuit, is a design-thinking practitioner motivated by empathy for the end user.

It’s part of what her company calls “Design for Delight,” a philosophy focused on customer-driven innovation. It allows design-thinking techniques to inform the development of their products, such as well-known accounting software QuickBooks.

As a guest speaker at this year’s Knowledge Continuum, hosted by McIntire’s Center for the Management of Information Technology (CMIT), Witt described how successfully creating products directly for those who will use them requires authentic empathy from everyone involved. Or as the former architect, teacher, and Associate Partner for international design firm IDEO explains it, those who are building a product “need to be able to empathize with the who that receives your what and empowers you to do far better, faster.”

Design thinking has helped Intuit to solve customer problems and build competitive advantage. Witt says that the company is “customer-obsessed,” a shift from being customer-driven, an attitude that was just shy of inspiration. “Now we’re customer-inspired. We understand their stories, develop empathy, and relate to their context,” she says.

The iterative, fast-failing paradigm of design thinking allows Intuit to meet customers’ needs—and meet them quickly. “We aren’t taking that full life cycle to deliver follow-up. We’re highly metrics-driven, in terms of whether or not we’re delivering on the benefit we promised and attacking the fundamentals like performance and intuitiveness,” Witt says. “We’re ensuring that that original customer inspiration actually translates into true customer obsession.”

We asked Witt more about how design thinking informs her work and about the role of empathy in bettering the end-user experience.

How does design thinking affect the steps of the development process?
You’re going broad. You’re quickly narrowing. You throw out a ton of ideas. You narrow in on something that feels like a believable value proposition. You go broad again. It’s rapid cycling.

It’s not meant to be a linear process. It’s iterative but grounded in deep customer empathy. We translate that customer empathy into concrete hypotheses about what could be by “going broad to go narrow,” and breaking through sets of constraints quickly. That means being able to translate rapidly into action what you believe you observed and was important, and to reflect that action back to your customers and understand how they engage with it from a behavioral perspective, ideally. That’s where rapid experimentation with customers comes in.

What are the advantages of getting your product into the hands of users quickly?
Before my time at Intuit, I spent a decade at IDEO. I’d say the biggest pitfall of the clients we worked with was the level of investment they would allow before getting products in front of customers—particularly those that required technology-capability building. By the time you’ve invested that much, there’s an immense organizational need for that thing to be successful.

So the mantra of “you’ve got to fail to succeed”? Well, that’s all well and good, unless I’ve just spent a year and tens of millions of dollars—if not more than that—investing in this untested idea. At that point, there’s far too much organizational and human capital invested for that thing to fail. So really, this is about figuring out where to place your bets, doing it in a way that’s rigorous and efficient and human-driven, and then being able to go from there.

Let’s say that you have this fantastic idea that everybody’s going to love. It’s the most useful thing you have yet done. Well, you know what? After about the 15th person fails to find it useful, you start to clue in that maybe there’s something going on here. The ability to go broad to go narrow, to canvas that landscape, to allow yourself to operate without heavy constraints, it encourages a quick exploration that allows you to push on and discover which technological limitations would be the most important to develop capabilities around, in tandem with rapid experimentation.

How do you suggest a business begin to incorporate theories of design thinking?
Get a process coach to work with you. You want someone who is steeped in how it’s done so that they can translate that process to a team you believe will take that to scale. Put a few rock stars on the team who are passionate about trying design thinking but don’t necessarily know how. The reason you want a process guru—rather than just following a map—is because it’s more about mindset than it is about following a predetermined set of steps. You want somebody there who can navigate the nuances.

Getting started is one thing, but how do you preserve empathy throughout the process of product delivery when there are so many stakeholders and different trade-offs that accompany getting a product to market?
I try to make possibility concrete and to galvanize feeling inside storytelling. Not everybody who is in the nexus of the army that it will take to deliver something has the privilege of going out and developing that empathy. So how can you create some of that emotional context for someone removed from the process so that they know the why? When you know why you’re doing something, you do a better job of it, and you overcome constraints much more often.

For my design organization, we do a lot of ideal-state creation; it’s not necessarily what you’ll deliver in the first version. Because we’re an agile company, it won’t actually be what we ultimately create, but it provides a north star that allows everyone to understand what we believe we’re working toward delivering.

In profit-oriented industries where empathy isn’t necessarily part of the fabric of the business, how do you search for it and use it as a guiding force? For example, how does empathy figure into the equation if you’re working at a Wall Street firm that wants to increase its profits?
To use empathy as a guide in business, you have to showcase the connectivity. Empathy and profit do not sit as polar opposites. If you understand your customers, what they want and need, and develop something they desire, you’ll make money. In fact, you’ll make a lot of money. To hold the two at antipathies is a falsehood. Everyone has some level of customer they serve. Knowing who you serve and how you can better understand them to better serve them has a very high corollary to being able to run a sustainable, profitable business.

If you want an organization to be customer insight-driven with any level of alignment and efficiency, you have to figure out provocative ways to get people excited about that customer group and about that set of insights that matters to them. You’re coupling customer insights and core research capabilities with creative storytelling; it’s one of the ways we’ve been able to scale and galvanize insight. Things that are often left behind as “nice to have” often become fundamental and essential to an organization that wants to be empathy-driven from the onset.

At the end of the day, what we’re looking to do is develop an amazing business. We are looking to have profound impact for customers in a way that’s deeply sustainable. We believe that if we “Design for Delight,” the delight is something that is self-propagating. If I loved the experience I had on TurboTax, I’m going to tell somebody else to use it. It’s by creating that circle of delight that ends up lowering your cost of acquisition per customer. It’s its own best marketing.

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