QuickBooks Billing and Subscription

A service design odyssey

Project highlights
  • Design strategy
  • Service design
  • Ecosystem system design and analysis

Challenge: Billing related customer support contacts made up 20% of all volume; millions a year. Causes were systemic and originated all across the end-to-end customer experience, and solving the issue only via support agents was unscalable.

Hypothesis: If the subscription and billing experience was systemically defined, diagnosed, and remediated in multiple points along the end-to-end journey, customer experience would improve while support contacts simultaneously go down.


Context: QuickBooks subscription and billing issues were the top driver of customer support incidents, comprising 20% of all volume which at Intuit's scale is in the millions.

The issue was systemic across the ecosystem, but there was no cross-ecosystem team that monitored or designed end-to-end experiences for abstract concepts such as "the subscription and billing experience." As a connected SAAS ecosystem, it became clear this was not a customer pain that could be approached silo by silo.

As Intuit's first service designer, I proposed creating a temporary team around the end-to-end customer experience of "subscription and billing" and treat it as both a product and service.

I was the service design lead, accompanied by a design strategist, interaction and visual designers, product management, voice of the customer analysts, and customer support staff.  

Human problem our customers were facing: Small business owners who used QuickBooks wanted to know how much they were paying, what they were paying for, and when any trials, discounts, or deals ran out. With the existing system, this was a simple task made difficult and one they were not always able to complete without contacting support or cancelling.

Business objective: Reduce the volume of customer support contacts that ended up in the support system's categories of billing and subscription, prevent cancellations, improve the overall customer experience.

This project's primary customer: The QuickBooks customer, both new to the franchise and customers already past their first billing cycle.

The ask: Turn the end-to-end billing and subscription experience into tangible product and service that could be worked on by the siloed teams that own the individual touchpoints, collaborating with them across the organization to deliver holistic and synchronized solutions.

Role: Customer experience and service design strategy
Team: QuickBooks core, central technology, customer support
Problem definition and research

Billing, an impersonal, internally focused mechanism with no delight

The state of the subscription and billing experience at the outset of this project was one of outdated, siloed, and utilitarian touchpoints. There was nothing that unified the experience to ensure consistency and logic, and there was no customer experience standard of quality.

To further complicate the project, each touchpoint and process was owned by a different internal team: the team who did emails, the team who did the account management, the team who did the marketing, the team who did the sign-up, etc, etc.

As seen below, the experience lacked cohesion, but more than that it lacked any sense of value to the customer. It was your bill, an unpleasant but necessary part of using a monthly cloud product.

Left: The email customers received when billed. Right: the entirety of the billing settings in QuickBooks

Taking the customer-backed lens to the experience

Before diving into fixing the touchpoints, I suggested we take a step back and evaluate the current state with active and potential customers.

This was done through on-site invitations to watch small business owners who were not customers try and sign up and subscribe to QuickBooks, and by meeting with existing customers in their workplaces to have them show us how the billing and subscription relationship.

Research with QuickBooks customers, gathering the real story of their experiences with billing

We gathered the expectations, pains, and sentiments about steps along the journey for potential and existing customers, and used those qualitative datapoints as inputs for the next phase of analysis: our internal structure and how it supports the subscription and billing experience.

The architecture of the relationship between customer and company

We had customer input, but we needed company input. The system that created this experience was spread across the whole company, not only QuickBooks, but central technology used by other products like TurboTax and Mint, and both product owners and marketing owners.

Taking a page out of Conway's Law (a system will represent its organization), I visualized the subscription and billing relationship, capturing the following "current state" of how we delivered this experience. It consisted of:

  1. The customer experience stages and their objective in each (aware, interest, buy...)
  2. The counterpart stages and Intuit's responsibility in each (attract, help decide, sell...)
  3. The events, touchpoints, policies, technology systems, and internal stake holders for each stage
A macro view of the silos, phases, and obligations of the organization and customer experience.

Creating guiding principles

With the relationship mapped and defined, each stage was given a guiding principle, as was the entire relationship. They were:

  1. Overall: The customer's subscription experience should be transparent, simple, and self-managed throughout the entire duration of the relationship.
  2. Awareness phase: Clarity, simplicity, and stability of offering and product pricing. The product lineup is the same across every channel.
  3. Purchase phase: The customer needs to understand exactly what they're getting
  4. Onboarding phase: Disruption in the customer's understanding of what they are getting should be kept to a minimum. Upselling offers should be triggered by customer action or profile, not a generic email schedule.
  5. Ongoing use: Customers should never have to call in to understand or manage their subscription. Communication through the relationship should be as succinct, simple, and timely as possible.

With this slice of our organization and the customer experience codified, blueprinting the end-to-end, surface-to-core of the individual use cases that made up the bulk of painful customer experience and support calls was next.

Highlighted skills
Diagnostics and opportunity mining

Turning empathy and analysis into actionable insights with the service blueprint

Stakeholders who represented the stages from the relationship were gathered for a holistic blueprinting workshop. Using a portable, high-definition projector, I led this cross-functional team through the blueprinting process.

Capturing the end-to-end, surface-to-core view required more than just product design. To complete the holistic picture, I gathered representatives from:

  1. Online advertising
  2. QuickBooks.com marketing
  3. First-use and core product team
  4. Intuit central technology
  5. Intuit customer account management
  6. Customer support
  7. Finance
The service blueprints created digitally and printed for sharing and annotation

End-to-end, surface-to-core

This shared, tribal knowledge gave us the first concrete view into the subscription and billing experience across all of Intuit. Attempts at customer journey maps of this experience had been attempted in the past, but it lacked the nuance of the silos and the "backstage" the customer didn't see. Journey maps are incomplete since they do not include what is outside of the customer's journey.

The outcome of the research and blueprinting sessions resulted in the comprehensive end-to-end, surface-to-core views of the billing and subscription experience, the first of its kind across all of Intuit.

One of the blueprints of the core QuickBooks subscription experience for new customers
Zoomed-in view of specific steps in the subscription blueprint

Turning empathy and analysis into actionable insights

Through the blueprinting process, I led the team through blueprinting the scenario, and in identifying 3 overarching themes:

  1. Customer price confusion
  2. Understanding which offering they signed up for
  3. User experience and interface shortcomings

These insights were further broken down into two categories:

  1. Strategic insights which needed a vision and alignment across leadership
  2. Tactical fixes which were "just go do" items teams could implement
Collected insights gathered into strategic and tactical opportunities that span the end-to-end

We now had a quantified, concrete view of opportunities, and a comprehensive understanding of the experience that combined customer-backed research with the holistic view of our organizations frontstage and backstage.

Next was turning insight into action.

Highlighted skills
Design, develop, deploy

Holistic, coordinated improvements to cumulatively elevate the customer subscription experience

Using a simple "future state vision" version of the blueprint, we created a new, aspirational experienced based on the guiding principles, customer research, and mountain of opportunities identified both tactical and strategic.

This was the guiding rubric for what would be built to create an impact and start the customer sentiment and support call volume moving in the right directions: sentiment goes up, call volume goes down.

A future-state blueprint proposing a new flow, capturing the promises as they are made and then kept across the journey

In the vision, we intentionally identified two things as part of the visioning process:

  1. Where a promise was being made by the brand, process, or product
  2. Where the promise was subsequently kept by the brand, process, or product

This let us keep track of how expectations were being set up. Too few and there was nothing QuickBooks to "make good on" downstream. Too many, and the likelihood of setting up an expectation we could not meet was increased.

Tactical fixes that could have immediate impact

With the future state vision in place and the expectations and promises mapped, the concrete touchpoints we knew could make an impact were selected.

As we were working with a large, multi-team ecosystem, several factors had to be considered:

  1. The roadmap and capacity of each silo to deliver a touchpoint, or allow for outside help
  2. The current resourcing and ownership of a touchpoint and if anyone even worked on it
  3. How altering a touchpoint for tactical gains might impact or harm other, higher-priority initiatives

With these considerations, we chose from the touchpoints and opportunities five different areas that we felt met customer expectations, adhered to our guiding principles, and were possible given the 3 constraints above. The interventions were:

  1. Clarity of messaging on the product lineup marketing page
  2. Simplifying the view of what the customer was "getting" on the checkout page with an emphasis on price and term of any potential discounts
  3. Structuring the "my subscription" page in QuickBooks for active users to clearly delineate what they have, how they are charged, and when any discounts will end and their price will change
  4. Simplifying the email that is sent that describes the subscription upon purchase and renewal
  5. Rewriting the self-help article about the QuickBooks subscriptions.

Touchpoint revisions

For a cross-ecosystem effort like this, there were many cooks in the kitchen when it came to UX, visual, and interaction design. Me and my direct strategic stakeholders in this effort worked directly with the designers, product managers, and engineers across these touchpoints to bring the new versions to life.

Each touchpoint revision followed the QuickBooks Design System patterns at the time, and each laddred up to the guiding principles and opportunities identified. Overall, the unified new subscription and billing experience was a cohesive, clear, and effective series of touchpoints that looked to be designed and coordinated by a single team, covering up the seams that Conway's Law warns against (a system will represent its organization).

Product lineup on QuickBooks.com, restructured for clarity
Checkout page on QuickBooks.com
"My subscription" view for an active QuickBooks Online customer
Subscription notification email with individual charges per SKU
Rewritten learn and support article crafted to support the new process and guiding principles

Results across the journey

The improvements led to material increases over time to customer NPS about the billing and subscription experience, as well as a quantitative decrease in customer support cases. Moving the entire journey across an ecosystem is like nudging an iceberg, there's a lot of mass and inertia to overcome and most of it is underwater. But, with enough steady pressure across multiple touchpoints, you can make it move in the right direction.

Highlighted skills

Reflections & learnings

This was the second service design project at Intuit and one of the most successful. The output was a revelation to all involved: no one in the company had a real holistic view about how billing and subscription worked. It was a series of silos that were lined-up and working together, but weren't coordinated.

The success of this project relied on the shared language and visibility into the process and experience from end-to-end, surface-to-core. When everyone saw their place in the higher-order customer experience, they understood how they impacted their partners downstream, and how their partners upstream impacted them. This allowed for positive change.

None of this would have been possible if we hadn't nailed the definition of the problem AND the customer's experience of their journey. We might own the touchpoints, but they own the experience. The upfront diagnostics and definition were a long time coming, and no changes would have been possible until we took a step back and decided to do it.