TurboTax Live’s Approach to a Gender-Neutral Design System

A glimpse into our inclusive design journey

Ian Cameron
Feb 21, 2019 · 7 min read

At Intuit, inclusivity plays a part in our every day lives from our work culture, to how we lead, and even how we design. I’d like to share a small look into our process, and how it’s not something that comes easy.

TurboTax (now, with people)

When it comes time to file their taxes, 30 million Americans seek expert assistance from a CPA each year. In most cases, their situation seems complicated and they believe that do-it-yourself tax software can’t handle their needs.

Last year, Intuit launched a new product to meet the needs of these customers called TurboTax Live, which gives customers affordable, easy access (through video chat with screen sharing) to advice through a network of virtual tax experts.

Through a massive outreach effort, TurboTax Live built an extensive team of tax experts who are set up with home offices around the country and are ready to help those 30 million tax payers who need the extra assurance that comes from a credentialed tax expert.

One system, two customers

Along with the launch of TurboTax Live, TurboTax also completely re-designed its visual system to flex along each customer’s unique journey and deliver an innovative experience end to end. Intuit also introduced Turbo (a new app to help consumers take charge of their financial health) to consumers last year, so our new system had to flex to support this new product as well.

As a Product Design lead on the TurboTax Live consumer experience, one of challenges my team faced during the visual refresh was to create a differentiated design system, (including new icons, glyphs, colors, and imagery) that represented our new and extensive network of tax experts.

Our old design system was centered around product help and support, but with TurboTax Live, the focus needed to be on credentialed tax advice and expertise, not just product support.

This meant the new design system had to satisfy the needs of two customers — our tax experts and tax payers. Think of it like the Lyft of taxes. The goal was to take the existing system of images, iconography, and glyphs that represent our product support agents and create a new system to represent tax advice and expertise.

Designing gender neutral

From a design perspective, the system had to represent a diverse network of people, starting with the tiniest glyph, to an icon, all the way to live video, since live video chat is a major feature of TurboTax Live. Both the taxpayers and tax experts are equally valued, but have different needs. Our experts need to feel respected as a trusted adviser, and the taxpayer needs to feel like they are getting value for this premium service.

In the past, we’ve always used female imagery and icons/glyphs to represent that human touch in our software. Through many rounds of customer testing, we’ve learned that feminine imagery and icon systems convey confidence, assurance, approachability, and patience to customers when seeking assistance during tax prep.

This kind of unconscious bias is very common in customer testing, and it’s not to say masculine imagery won’t convey confidence, but our original design system was based on those learnings.

Nontraditional differences

The team’s first thought was to use the current feminine design system to represent product support and explore new masculine concepts to represent expert help. Let’s just all recognize that in hindsight this was a flawed approach. Here’s why:

Even designers have their own unconscious bias.

When we started brainstorming attributes that represent “traditional” masculinity in our society: hairstyles, jawlines, clothing, shoulder width, etc., something felt really off. We couldn’t put our finger on it, but it didn’t feel like the right path.

We have been conditioned to see gendered icons with certain attributes, female icons are typically shown wearing triangular dresses and male icons usually wear ties. We had also been leaning on all our previous customer research to help inform these decisions, but like I stated earlier, it’s really common for learnings to reflect unconscious bias. And designers aren’t perfect — we have our own, too.

We went broad with our thinking and started coming up with the some new ways to differentiate our designs that didn’t include traditional gender signifiers, like eye wear, hair styles, clothing, and secondary modifier attributes. The designs were still gendered, but falling closer toward neutral on the scale.

More gender-less

In our first design review with stakeholders, including our VP of design, Kurt Walecki, we brought these explorations and shared our current progress. Leadership liked the direction we were going in, but Kurt suggested exploring even more inclusive color palettes and attributes that were even less gender-specific.

It was during this meeting that we decided to lean all the way into a gender neutral design system. We realized we had been unintentionally reinforcing social norms and biases, which is counter to our core beliefs. This was an opportunity to create change and declare inclusive design as a priority.

Since representation matters in the products we create, we decided gender did not need to play a factor in what we were trying to communicate. What was most important was that customers feel like we have their backs, that they have confidence their taxes are done right, and they feel heard. This has nothing to do with gender — it’s about being human.

Undressing stereotypes

So, we went broad again. We explored new concepts that represented a gender neutral tax expert at the smallest form and made some small changes to the system that represented product support. One of the challenges was representing expertise at the smallest form. A tie, for example, did read as a professional attribute, but was mostly associated with classic male representations.

We ran some quick tests with coworkers, and the glasses consistently registered as an expert quality. We recognize this is also an antiquated stereotype — what is it about glasses that causes people to think that? We ran into the same problem when looking at different clothing styles, too.

Another challenge was finding a good hair style that wasn’t tied to a specific gender. We started with a classic representation of a bob hair cut, moving along the continuum towards one that looked a bit more masculine.

Once we landed on what the design of the glyph looked like, we moved up to the design of the icon, and finished with the illustration. We pressure tested each representation inside the product and created principles for how each one would be used.

Here’s how it looks in our product

Here is where we landed on the design, and how we’ve applied it to the product experience. In its smallest form (the glyph), we actually made the first read resemble just a human. After all, TurboTax has a very strong brand recognition as a DIY software, so we wanted people to know they are not alone.

At the next click up at the icon level we brought in attributes that represent expertise — the coat with lapels and glasses. We chose not to go with a collared shirt because we didn’t want it to feel too formal, and the collar is classically and symbolically tied to the male gender. We landed on the glasses as well (vs the headset for the product specialists), which we know still reflects unconscious bias, but we feel it works — for now.

Overall, the team feels good about where we landed. The feedback from our tax experts was mixed, but overall they enjoy the story behind it and appreciate the journey that we are on.

“The fact that we acknowledge that we can try to remove gender to focus on expertise is a step in the right direction”

Daniele G. — Sr Tax Expert Manager & Juris Doctor

Designing for gender neutrality, and inclusive design will always be a work in progress. We would never assume we’ve arrived, as our world and our customers are always evolving. As designers, we should try not to fall in love with our solutions; our work is about solving customer problems, reevaluating our progress, and challenging assumptions. It’s never done.

Thanks so much for taking the time to read about our journey during this project. I’d love to hear how you approach gender-neutrality and inclusive design, what has/hasn’t worked for you, and any other insights you have.

BLUEprint by Intuit

Thoughts from Intuit on tech, data, design, and the culture that powers today's innovation.

Ian Cameron

Written by

Product design manager at Intuit — Leading Design Technology

BLUEprint by Intuit

Thoughts from Intuit on tech, data, design, and the culture that powers today's innovation.

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