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Creating a year-round customer relationship

Turbotax is by nature a very seasonal product. For the most part, users only log in between February and April, for the sole purpose of filing their taxes. But when digging into the data and conducting research we did find some legitimate reasons, other than filing your taxes, to log in year-round, and in fact the numbers showed that this was happening.

Further research turned up a ton of reasons to log in to Turbotax. And as we documented these reasons, we began mapping them onto a rough annual timeline and a seasonality emerged:

The problem? None of these options were accessible to the user when they logged in. The product had been designed in such a way that as soon as you log in, you land on a screen that says “Let’s start your taxes!” regardless of the actual reason they are there.

Using the insight of seasonality and the user need for more actions outside of tax prep, we introduced the idea of the“Tax Timeline”. I designed a modern, familiar, and flexible timeline interface to surface important tasks and create a year-round customer relationship. You can read more about this work in an article I wrote titled “Lessons Learned While Designing a Timeline”.

The results of the introduction of the Tax Timeline were overwhelmingly positive. During the 2013 tax season (between December 2013 and October 2014), the timeline received 29M unique users, had 97% engagement (meaning users browsing, clicking on links, etc.) and had no negative impact on conversion. This last point might sound trivial but was a huge feat; it was almost impossible at that time to introduce any new screens or flows at the beginning of the tax preparation experience and not negatively impact conversion.

There were a few other data points that showed us we had achieved our goal of providing users with year round value:

  1. During that same tax season, support calls for “Where’s my refund” decreased 29% (~39,000 calls). If you conservatively assume that each support call costs the company $15, then this alone saved the company over half a million dollars annually.
  2. Support calls for “How do I amend my return” decreased 46% (~11,400 calls). This saved the company almost $200,000 annually.
  3. And finally, when we audited the “post-season” experience (after tax season ended on Oct 15), we didn’t give our users any options, even though it was still possible to do one’s taxes using the desktop product. So, we designed an experience, allowing users to easily download their started return and continue filing on desktop. This simple addition began bringing in an extra $600k annually.

Then came 2014 and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) started requiring Americans to have health insurance or pay a penalty. The way of enforcing this of course was through end-of-year taxes. You would have to claim on your tax return whether you had health insurance for part or all of the year, and if not you would be required to pay a penalty. This was a huge change to tax law and consequently TurboTax. A huge team was spun up not only to help users understand how this affected their taxes within the product, but also to help them find the exchanges and qualify for health insurance.

Around the same time, a small, startup-like team within the company had developed a new product called Benefit Assist. Using your tax data, Benefit Assist would scour local and national government services to see what benefits you qualified for and quickly help you apply. In all, this service helped 40% of TurboTax customers qualify for an extra $1,500 annually. This was a meaningful amount of money for most users who qualified.

Note: Since my time at TurboTax, the Benefit Assist product has been sunset for reasons I am not aware of.

I bring up the ACA and Benefit Assist to show that around 2014 we were offering products and services that were well beyond the scope of just taxes. This led us to the realization that we needed to create an ecosystem that wrapped around the tax prep experience to give users access to products and services outside of tax preparation. It would be personalized to each user based on the time of year, their filing status, and other personal data to deliver a dynamic, top-of-mind experience.

In the end we found that a timeline design was the best vehicle to deliver value to our customers who are generally coming in to perform a specific task at a specific time. It is a design paradigm that people know and understand and when executed properly can really delight users. Within a single tax season (2013), users were already familiar with the pattern and were even talking about it in research for the following year. Experience and design aside, it had measurable, monetary impact to the business in the millions, annually.

Product Design Manager @ Facebook Social Impact


Product Design Manager @ Facebook Social Impact