What’s the difference between online management startup Mint.com and personal finance software Quicken?
“Quicken, before, looked like it was from 1996. Imagine that you were going through a castle of 100 rooms, and it’s got all of these loops in it and hidden stairways. And the first time you go through, someone asks you to find the library on the third floor. You’d say, I have no idea where it is, I can’t remember,” says Aaron Patzer, Mint’s founder. “Quicken was designed like that before. It had all these loops: You could get to certain features through multiple different directions, which you might think is convenient. It actually makes it much more difficult to build a mental model of the software, which is what everyone implicitly does.”
For years, Patzer has been airing his frustrations with Quicken and similar services such as Microsoft Money. He says these frustrations were a central reason for starting Mint, which now boasts 4 million users, and was also a central reason for Intuit’s $170 million acquisition of his company last year.
“When Intuit acquired us, they said, I heard you’ve been talking trash about Quicken for a while, so why don’t you go fix what you think the problems are,” Patzer explains.
Since then, Patzer and his team have dramatically overhauled–or Mint-ified–Intuit’s product, streamlining a slew of Quicken features and making it more visually digestible. Big changes included a simplified account setup; an iTunes-like color scheme; infographics; advanced search, sorting, and resizable columns; gradients; nearly doubling the accuracy of transaction categorization; more than doubling the amount of accessible banks; and refining under-the-hood specs with Mint’s back-end.
“As far as the vision on where the navigation should go, what features should be highlighted, which should be deleted, which should be omitted, which should be enhanced, I did that myself, in one weekend actually,” Patzer says. After all, he’s been reflecting on his frustrations with Quicken for years, and lists them off with ease: “In the past, you had to select, do I want Express Web Connect, Web Connect, or Direct Web Connect? No one knew what those meant. They meant, do you want to use a direct OFX connection, do you want to download QIF files, or do you want to use a screen scraping connection? No one should care about the difference. It should just be: get me the information from my bank.”
I asked how the Mint team integrated with the folks from Quicken, a product that has been in development since the late 1980s. Patzer didn’t mind being the new kid on the block.
“I sat down in a series of four meetings, three hours each, no breaks. We went through the entire product, every dialogue box, every pop up, every input, and I asked them to justify it the way that they had,” he says. “I challenged them: This doesn’t make any sense to me, and here’s why it should be different.”
What came from this direction was Quicken 2011, one of the highest acclaimed versions of the product in years. Patzer admits that if this product had existed before, he would have had “far less incentive” to start Mint. Now, he’s concentrating on merging Mint and Quicken even closer together.
“What we’ve done is taken that 100 room castle–maze, really–and made a simple six room house, where, when you’ve gone through it once, you know exactly where the bathroom is,” he says.