TurboTax Design FAIL

I’m so hopeful when I install the new version of something. Everyone is. An upgrade, the payment of cash for the new version, is an extremely hopefully act. I imagine they’ve fixed some things, made some nice improvements, and most of all, have taken into account the things I did with the old version.

And thinking like a designer, the best time to make me feel I chose wisely in upgrading, instead of buying a competing product, is in the first few minutes of use, known in the lingo as the OOBE (out of box experience).

So here it is, in 2010, that Intuit TurboTax fails me again.

As an aside, Yes, I know, I have not be failed by TurboTax in the same way the folks in Haiti have been failed by the universe at large.

26 Responses to “TurboTax Design FAIL”

    1. Scott Berkun

      Sean: To be completely honest, in this case I wasn’t thinking of Intuit or TurboTax or anything at all. I wanted to spend as little time and annoyance as possible on this entire experience. And when I was forced to prolong it for any reason it was a disappointment.

  1. Greg Nudelman


    As David Aragon of Voter March so eloquently said, “all errors are human error” and some humans committing errors just happen to be the designers and engineers who ship defective products.

    If more designers wrote and twitted about it, maybe we get somewhere! As far as competition — one thing that’s fantastic about US: there is always some guy in a garage just waiting for a chance to catch the next big fish. Remember how Google came out of nowhere? Remember Altavista, Hotbot, AskJeeves and Excite? Intuit better sit up and pay attention.

    As I say in my “Experience Partners: Giving Center Stage to Customer Delight”:

    We must decide just how, going forward, we will relate to the people who use our designs

  2. Elizabeth Grigg

    Yeah, there ought to be a law against mitigating bad news by delivering even worse news.

    (hastily switches the order of the completely hosed and partially hosed statements in the dialog she’s designing so that partially hosed is now 1st)

    Looks much better, thanks!

  3. Millard

    I did this a few weeks ago, so I’m a bit hazy on the details, but I’m pretty sure I said “Start a new return”, then it asked if I wanted to import last year’s data — just like it has for the last 10 year or so I’ve been using it.

    Love your stuff, bought your books, and I’m not sure this one’s on Intuit.

  4. Chelsea


    First, thanks for sharing your experience. It’s feedback like this that helps us to constantly improve, and we take it really seriously. I reached out to you via Twitter, and am doing so here too in hopes that you’ll email me directly so I can share your additional thoughts with the right team here at TurboTax.

    Second, since listening to our customers and responding is part of our DNA, I want to share with you our Inner Circle. It’s a place for folks with thoughts on how we can improve or make our products better go to help us with the process. Feedback like that you’ve shared above is super helpful to us, and I hope you will consider joining: https://scottberkun.com

    Last, we do have a satisfaction guarantee. Please be in touch with me directly (you’ve got my email) if that’s something you’re interested in pursuing. Most importantly, we really want your feedback, and I hope you’ll share more and join our Inner Circle.

    Chelsea with TurboTax

  5. Jason D.

    Hmmm, in the past several years I’ve had good luck with Turbo Tax happily finding and importing the previous year’s return. No muss, no fuss. I haven’t done mine this year yet…now you’ve spooked me!

  6. Phil Simon

    Ha! If only there were a little “Berkun Button” app that you could install that would have your head and voice appear with these little explanations.

    Come to think of it…any coders out there? I’m going to register http://www.berkunbutton.com.

  7. Matt

    You are supposed to click the big blue button that says start new return. It then asks you to import. It didn’t confuse me for a second. You went into the program with an expectation about what would come first, just go with the flow man! I give the UI an A++. I was able to download the software and complete a friend’s return in less than 20 minutes.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Matt: My point, which you are free to disagree with, is that given I’ve used the product before, I don’t want to start a new return from scratch. I want to start by using last year’s return that has tons of information I don’t want to input again.

      Intuit has all the data, but I’m sure my assumptions about what “Start New” means are frequent enough that some indicator on that first screen that the software is aware of last year’s return is warranted. Currently, there is no indication at all, and that’s my primary critique of this design.

      It’s also worth noting that all UI design hinges on cognitive psychology and perception and everyone’s perception is slightly different. The fact you find it easy and obvious does not mean anything about what everyone else will find easy and obvious, which is the core challenge of UI design in the first place.

  8. sid

    while I understand what you are saying, I dont think turbo tax is designed that way. And for me, it works just fine.

    I am not sure what ‘using previous years taxes as a starting point’ means. I expect that I will start turbo tax, and at the right time, it will tell me it needs previous year’s data and import it automatically. And that is exactly how it worked.

    IMO, your criticism is a tad harsh. I do not see laziness as being the reason here. You are disagreeing with the workflow (which I understand) but I think the software team that designed this has a different workflow in mind. One that worked well with my expectations

    1. Scott Berkun

      Josh/Sid: Thanks for providing dissenting opinions.

      Only the TurboTax folks have data on how common the expectations I had are. I think they’re reasonable, but clearly you guys, and others who comment on this thread don’t.

      I’m arrogant enough to think my expectations are common enough that that first screen should have a hat tip in my direction. There should be some indicator the system knows I have made a previous return with last year’s version and I can start from it if I choose.

      But I also admit that the fact I know a great deal about UI design doesn’t mean I’m not myopic and selfishly biased about how common my complaints or expected workflows are :)

      Thanks for the comments all.

  9. Josh

    Scott, I honestly think you got this one wrong. For the most part, at least. I completely agree with you that the message box was not the best way to handle this situation, but I disagree with your basic case that you were behaving in a common manner.

    Let’s dissect what you were actually doing. You’ve just installed TurboTax 2009 (a clearly year-based product) and your goal is to do your 2009 taxes. I would argue that the first thing most user would like to do is actually start their 2009 taxes. I do not think many users would want to use this product to browse previous year’s returns.

    I agree that perhaps a “View Previous Year’s Returns” would be a good button to put on the front page, but I also think it could cause confusion for many users. Let’s explore a scenario.

    Let’s say you’re an unsophisticated computer user. You sit down to do your 2009 taxes after having a good experience last year in 2008. Now, if you could open 2008 files as easily as you’d have liked I’d guess some significant portion of users might think they should open their old returns as the first step. This might lead to them editing the old return, or trying to resubmit it without intending.

    I realize the whole experience could be more inclusive of past years on the front page, but I can also understand (as an interface designer) the decision to make the front page only about this year, and starting a new return. Having used TurboTax for many years, I know the very next step in the process is the ability to import last year’s info. Again, this would probably be fine on the front page but I think it’s just as valid to keep the front page uncluttered.

    That’s just another opinion. In general, I agree with the spirit of what you’ve said.

  10. Matt

    I see your point Scott, that people come to the software with different expectations. I don’t see where it said start a new return “from scratch”, that was your invention. I think what I am saying is, to be a happy computer user, you have to click on stuff. If you expect all software to be laid out according to your cognitive biases, you will live an unhappy life. If you click on one more button, what you want would have come to you. In any case, you received an error message that did not in any way suggest you were partially hosed in the second sentence, it gave you the way out.

    I have a degree in CogSci, so I appreciate the reference to the subject. One thing that you might not be thinking about is that I used TurboTax to prepare 4 returns last year, so there is a need for a bit of that complexity on page one, especially when preparing my own complex return. If it just directly launched into one of those returns, I would have been a bit annoyed. I switched to TurboTax from using TaxCut in 2007, which I found to be a bit ungainly.

    Of course, I find typing on a iPhone to be incredibly frustrating, so it is highly probable that I am the UI comprehension outlier.

  11. TurboTax Aliza

    Hello there

    First, this post is really great in describing what you experienced…thanks for taking the time to write it down and sharing.

    I am writing to reach out and ask a few more questions (if you don’t mind) because we want to get this right for you, in the future, and for our other customers who may have had similar experience. Please let me know if you would be open for a small group of us to ask you additional questions so that we can fix this.

    Aliza Carpio
    Engineering Manager, TurboTax

  12. Bill Scott


    I got the same invitation to “join the inner circle” when I blogged about this: http://looksgoodworkswell.blogspot.com/2009/06/anti-pattern-needless-fanfare-turbo-tax.html

    I was flattered. But after seeing them offer you the same inner circle deal I went through the process. At least 15 screens of survey data. Got to create an avatar! w00t! ;-) Then found a button to actually give feedback. Went through a half dozen more screens. At certain points would not let me finish unless I checked at least one box (out of about 20 other user’s random feedback).

    Wow. That did not raise my confidence.

    And, like, I really normally like Turbo Tax. But that inner circle thing is the subject of another blog article.

  13. Daniel Howard

    After several years of filling out the PDF file, printing it out, and mailing it in, I decided to try software this year. TurboTax carefully hid the pricing for state taxes, which I found scummy, so I went with a cheaper competitor, Tax Act, and the first thing Tax Act wanted to know was if I wanted to import the PDF of my 2008 tax return.


    So . . . thank you for reassuring me I made the right choice. :)

    It sounds like Intuit used to put a lot of effort into engineering superior software and getting the user experience right. Perhaps after they achieved market dominance the company switched to profit maximization, and/or all their best engineers cashed out to move on to new and interesting pastures. The move from scrappy startup to larger, self-serving corporate culture being an interesting phenomenon to understand . . .


  14. eric m.

    Scott– omg, go get ’em. I’ve been bitching (to myself) for years about Quicken and Quickbooks, two of the most atrocious interfaces I’ve ever seen… and of course there’s PayMyBills, an Intuit service, which is also very circa 1998.

    I think Intuit just has very crappy product managers, and no interface people at all.

  15. Jay Levitt

    This entire UX problem can be fixed with a five-byte change:

    s/””Continue a tax return”/”Continue a 2009 tax return”/

    The reason Scott was looking for his old returns first is because TurboTax pretended it might be trying to display them.

    That said, I am disturbed by Chelsea’s statement that “listening to our customers and responding is part of our DNA”. Not by the sentiment, but by the thought that she believes it. I too have tried to be a Good Consumer, and worked with Intuit QA through several product cycles in the hopes that Quicken would get more usable. It didn’t. Intuit is widely known for being an unnavigable wall of software bureaucracy. Nobody ever wants to upgrade to a new Intuit version, with its inevitable bit-rot, and they do so only because Intuit sunsets the old ones.

    If Intuit has actually begun some sort of organizational overhaul that involves listening to customers: great. But the first step down that road is to acknowledge that for the last 20 years, you haven’t been listening. If you think you have… you’ve just proved you haven’t.

  16. Mike Nitabach

    And why are these assholes telling the user that this is “Error: 539”? Like you give a fuck?

  17. jason

    I will second the TaxAct recommendation. I have used it for several years for my personal taxes and my S-Corp taxes for the last two years. It works great and is half the price of TurboTax.



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