Leslie Witt is vice president of design at the financial software company Intuit. She spoke to Doreen Lorenzo for Designing Women, a series of interviews with brilliant women in the design industry.
Doreen Lorenzo: How did you get to this position?
Leslie Witt: It was a curvy design path. I went to architecture school at Rice, fell in love with the academic environment of architecture, and decided to be a professor. I went on to get my master’s at Princeton. Unfortunately, as I started to practice architecture I had a bit of a falling out of love with the profession. I’d been passionately devoted to the academic architecture path, and I felt like I shouldn’t train students to do something that I didn’t want to do.
My husband pointed me toward Ideo, an innovation and design consultancy that has one of the founding fathers of design thinking and human-centered design. I had never heard any of those terms before. Ideo happened to need someone who was good at 3D rendering and who had an architectural background. So I came into Ideo, and I describe that moment as being re-oxygenated. It restored my faith in the impact that design could deliver, but in a radically different direction and by different means.
DL: What was it like to work there?
LW: I spent almost a decade at Ideo discovering the world of systems and digital services. I fell into financial services—thankfully, because when I looked at the potential that design had to reshape the tools that shape our money lives, I fell in love. I ran Ideo’s financial service practice, and about two and a half years ago I shifted over to the corporate world and joined Intuit.
DL: Is there a difference between working at an agency like Ideo, and working in-house at Intuit?
LW: At a lot of places the answer would be yes, having consulted for a decade and intersecting with a lot of corporations, particularly in the financial world. But there are core aspects of Intuit that are similar to Ideo. Intuit has spent the last 10 years building up design thinking and customer-driven innovation skills in all 8,000 employees. So that approach to problem-solving is part and parcel of the Intuit DNA, and it makes it a place where customer problems are front and center. Designers naturally have a strategic voice in the conversation.
What’s different is accountability for outcome. At Ideo, I got to taste different challenges and put forward inspirational provocations, but not end up responsible for driving that all the way to the market. That was the primary reason I decided to shift from agency life to being in-house—to actually be accountable, over the long term, for outcomes and to truly impact customers.
DL: What were some of the lessons you learned along the way, both good and bad?
LW: Let yourself do things that you thought you wouldn’t be interested in. My entire professional path is based on the fact that Fred Dust, one of the partners at Ideo, forced me onto a financial service project in Japan. When I shared with him that that did not meet my personal passion, he was like, ‘Oh . . . I don’t care. This is an important project and we need you on it.’ A lesson that I convey to young people getting out of college and trying to understand what it is that they want to do next is to allow themselves to try on for size areas that they may not instantaneously find appealing.
DL: Sometimes ideas that people deride as totally irrational get turned into something monumental. Tell us about when designers have done something unexpected.
LW: I’ll give you an example of where we embraced irrationality and micro-sized a monumental task through the powers of insight, design, and tech united. There’s immense potential with AI and machine learning in fintech–the formal constructs of compliance make it the perfect landscape to codify and bot-ify. As an organization, we’ve been focused pretty much forever on minimizing the amount of work required to know where you stand–be compliant, ready for taxes, equipped to make better decisions.
Last year, by combining design thinking with new capabilities, we were able to tackle one of the most intractable realities–that the self-employed don’t know their businesses, and are ill-equipped for tax time–30% don’t even deduct business expenses! They find tracking a drag and thus don’t do it. They’re often economically fragile, and have literally thousands of dollars that they could save through expense and mileage tracking, but either don’t ‘know,’ or simply don’t ‘do.’ Combine insight into human behavior with the marvels of AI capabilities and voila! We launched a service that unites TurboTax and QuickBooks to meet the self-employed where they are. We don’t require changed behaviors, we just change outcomes.
So here they come, wildly unprepared for tax time–we’re talking no mileage log, commingling of personal and business finances. We deployed an automated experience, developed through machine learning to sort and automatically categorize business expenses directly in TurboTax–we call it Expense Finder. With it, on average, we’re finding around $4,300 in business expenses, in minutes. For most, that’s the biggest paycheck of the year.
DL: How do you think being design-led has changed what Intuit is able to do?
LW: It has allowed us to continuously reinvent ourselves, because it puts at the premium that ability to stay abreast of what’s possible in meeting needs, to be compliant, to make better decisions, but to do it in ways that radically shift what’s required to get there. We’ve been able to essentially disrupt ourselves multiple times over, and that level of customer insight and ability to prototype and experiment in a way that amps up the potential to have adjacent offerings is a core part of that. So insofar as design is the champion of that approach to empirical, intuitive, desirability-driven discovery, we’ve been able to be very influential over time.
DL: It sounds like designers are going to play a huge role in changing the financial services industry. Do you see other companies embracing it at the level that you have?
LW: I do. Human beings, when it comes to their money, tend to be highly irrational, or at least very emotionally driven. Culturally that’s true too. Money sits at the intersection of almost all human choice, and most often it’s a huge anxiety creator. Our overall mental models of risk change based on cultural norms and macroeconomic activity. Finally, those institutions are recognizing that they have to be customer-centered, and what better than design to wield that flag? There’s a large number of us who have decided to focus on this space, and I think it’s for both the unmet opportunity and for the social impact.
DL: Do your own emotions factor into your ability to make design decisions and be influential in your organization?
LW: Yeah, I think so. I’ve never actually found there to be any pushback. As a leader, you have to both be able to unpack your rationale so that others can buy into it, but you also have to trust your gut. Intuition and emotion go hand in hand. And being able to wear your humanity on your sleeve tends to actually be a magnet for others rather than the opposite.