The maker of the popular Quicken, QuickBooks, and TurboTax software, Intuit began using ethnographic research way back when most software engineers thought of anthropology as a class they had to take in college. In 1989, Intuit launched its "follow me home" program, which embedded engineers in customers' homes, listening to their needs in a natural setting. Today, other software makers may do similar research, but Intuit is expanding both how it's applying the methodology—last year, the company began having software VPs and product engineers sit at call-center employees' desks to figure out how to improve their ability to help customers—and who knows how to do it.
Founder Scott Cook is teaching the process to leaders throughout the company, engineers or otherwise. "It has to be inculcated into all of our people so it's reinforced everywhere," says Cook. The company listens in many other ways, too. Blog posts, responses to feedback buttons within the software itself, and comments in new Intuit-sponsored online communities are all consolidated into its Voice of the Customer system, which lets the company aggregate what customers are really saying. That kind of continuous loop has real impact: The 2006 version of Quicken, for example, included more than 121 customer-recommended improvements.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.