The Role of Meaning in Software Design

Intuit has consistently produced some of the most successful financial software on the market (eg. Quicken, Turbotax) and according to a recent interview with the Harvard Business Review, founder Scott Cook credits their 30-year success story to design for emotion.  We recently met with Paul Sas, behavioral economist, and Intuit's Principal Research Scientist to discuss how their "design for delight" approach might be taken to the next level in the context of positive computing.

Want to transform drudgery into satisfaction? Seek out meaning.

Paul helped us to understand how Intuit has traditionally sought to deeply understand their customer values and goals.  What I find most exciting about the work they're doing is that the link between financial software and positive emotion is, for many, rather unexpected.  Somehow, designing a social network to support wellbeing seems an easier sell than redesigning your tax software to help you thrive.  And yet, when are we more flummoxed then when we're doing our taxes?  There is so much potential for experience improvement, but more importantly, there's so much potential for "reframing"  activities in more meaningful ways.
Despite our tendency to associate them with drudgery, all financial tasks are rooted in things we deeply value (ie. supporting family, investing in what's important to us, giving to others, recognition for achievement, working towards a goal, etc.) and if software could tap into that, imagine the benefits to both engagement and wellbeing. 
Really, it's a case of reframing tasks in ways that cut to the deeper meaning behind them.  Is doing your budget about watching your money get eaten up and filling out forms, or is it about better understanding your goals, what you value, and whether your spending is supporting those?  Mint understood the deeper meaning behind personal budgeting early on, and in recognition, Intuit acquired it.

Duties as opportunities

Another great example of reframing a task to benefit the user experience is cited by Cook in the HBR interview and comes from one of Intuit's competitors.  ZenPayroll reframed payroll drudgery as a celebration.  Compensating people for their work is actually an opportunity to celebrate their contribution, and the ZenPayroll approach reflects this. I would argue that it's also an opportunity for the person doing payroll to enjoy a moment in which they are empowered to give and experience a sense of gratitude towards the people with whom they work. 

Are you supporting the meaning behind the task?

I think Intuit is beginning to explore the tip of a fantastic iceberg and we can all learn from their interest in emotional experience.  No matter how dreaded or dry the activity your software supports may seem at first, ask yourself what the deeper intrinsic motivators and meanings are that are buried behind this activity.  Or better yet, ask your users (for example, by using the "five why's" aka. "laddering" interview technique).  The results might just be the key to engagement you were waiting for.