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Words at work

– 9 min read

How Intuit content designers prioritize diversity and inclusion language

Amy Cuevas Schroeder

Amy Cuevas Schroeder

“Blacklist” to “blocklist”, “whitelist” to “allowlist”, “grandfathered” to “legacy status”.

These are just a handful of the words that content strategists, diversity and inclusion leaders, product designers, and engineers are challenging in light of recent Black Lives Matter protests.

Jennifer Schmich says changes in our everyday language are long overdue. As Intuit’s senior manager of content systems, she and fellow content leaders are prioritizing updates to product and site language for their suite of products, including Turbotax, Quickbooks, TSheets, ProConnect, and Mint.

With more than 9,000 employees, decisions need to be made efficiently in order to scale content across UX, brand, and other teams. That’s where Intuit’s style guide comes in — which is not to imply that their style guide has always been a lean, mean, aligned machine.

Jennifer Schmich is Intuit’s senior manager of content systems.
Jennifer Schmich is Intuit’s senior manager of content systems.

When Jennifer started at Intuit in 2016, there were 11 or 12 style guides across the organization, “which wasn’t very effective or efficient,” she says from her home in San Francisco. “We weren’t aligned, and having so many style guides didn’t provide the kind of consistency we needed.” She brought together folks in content design, content strategy, customer success, marketing, tech docs, and comms and said, “What the hell are we doing? Let’s take a look at all of these style guides. Are they really special snowflakes?”

Here, Jennifer talks about designing Intuit’s chatbot to be gender neutral, adding “other / nonbinary” to forms, and how they’re encouraging engineers to shift language updates from P3 to P0.

Intuit Team illustration
Intuit’s content design and systems team. Illustration by Vivek Saigal.

What’s it like to lead the content systems team at Intuit?

I lead a team of three people, all based in the Bay Area, although, that might start changing. We look at ways to get more value from content created by other teams. We maintain Intuit’s style guide, voice, design systems, content architecture, and taxonomy management. We’re also getting more involved in chatbot and semantic technologies.

In addition to the content systems team, does Intuit have other content producers, writers, and strategists?

Yes, and they work on various teams. Content designers partner with product managers and other designers to deliver products. We also have marketing writers, support and help documentation writers, and chatbot writers and brand storytellers. Intuit is a big matrixed company with lots of dotted lines to connect. 

How do content producers and strategists stay aligned at Intuit?

With meetings, reviews, and an intake process; our style guide plays a big role in governance and design systems. A lot of the backend work of migrating content or building a new content management system (CMS) involves teams to align on the kind of content we’re creating, how we’re creating it, and making sure we’re sharing a vision and not undermining each other along the way. 

Intuit’s content process is a healthy system, and it’s improved a lot in the last few years. Intuit was previously a lot more siloed — each brand operated like its own business until someone said, “Why are we doing that?” We’re now a platform company; it’s been a journey to consolidate everything, and content has been a big part of that.

Intuit was previously a lot more siloed — each brand operated like its own business until someone said, “Why are we doing that?” We’re now a platform company; it’s been a journey to consolidate everything, and content has been a big part of that.Click To Tweet

How did you condense 11 or 12 style guides into one for Intuit?

There used to be so much duplication across the multitude of guides we tried to maintain. We went through the process of auditing, combining, reducing, and clearly marking meaningful differences, and created a consolidated guide that suits all Intuit brands. We’ve left room for things that need to be fixed and things that are flexible.

Our primary goals were to:

  • Unify content with best practices to improve quality.
  • Move faster because small, distracting decisions are already made.
  • Focus time on making a larger impact to the experiences we build.
  • Grow and maintain a single style resource.

We ended up with one style guide for all Intuit brands, and we vary on voice by brand attributes, principles, etc.

How did you establish Intuit’s accessibility and inclusion guidelines?

We started by looking at our company values. Our brand mission is about making sure everyone has the opportunity to prosper, and inclusivity in language is foundational to that. It’s for all customers — not just prosperity but the product, too. It’s not prosperity for some — it’s for everyone. When it comes to inclusivity, we always ask ourselves, “Are our customers seen?”

When it comes to inclusivity, we always ask ourselves, “Are our customers seen?Click To Tweet

In terms of our style guide, we started with accessibility and got a lot of customer feedback. For instance, we had what seemed like 15 shades of gray in our product color palette, and some of our customers said, “I can’t see properly.” 

We organized a whole group of customers around ability. We have a very active accessibility initiative to get input from them and industry groups — it’s a partnership to make the product usable for everyone. That goes into the code, design, as well as our language choices. We comply with American Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines for web. 

From there, we moved from accessibility into gender when we got into chatbot conversational design. It’s important to our VP of design, Leslie Witt, to make good choices about what we design. We went through quite a process to design the chatbot to be gender neutral. That comes from working at word choices to the name and the metaphors and tone of various messages. 

As consumers, we noticed that the Alexa voice will say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.” Alexa is very apologetic in a subservient sort of way. Leslie wrote about this on Refinery in Digital Assistants Shouldn’t Only Be Women.

We were very purposeful about our choices. We always include lots of customer testing and talk with our brand team about that. We’re very careful in naming things — even the names in our demo will not be all gendered, like, Mike. We include neutral names like Alex and Taylor.

In our forms, we used to have binary choices for filling out taxes; the federal government might say you have to collect gender of spouse or dependent. We added a third option for other/ nonbinary. 

Intuit WhatsYourGender

We tackled the issue of gender stereotyping because we don’t want to assume that our accountants are primarily men. We addressed in our space of accounting and tax prep. The stereotype of mainly men filing taxes and keeping books does not reflect our financial expert network. Intuit experts are pretty evenly female and male — actually, tipping more female some years. 

We’re not using old-school “he” / “her” pronouns, giving us a chance to break the grammar rule and keep the language neutral by saying “you” and “my” as often as possible. We use “them”, “they”, “their”; don’t want to make an assumption of who’s using the product.

How is your team updating race and ethnicity language guidelines?

Our style council has prioritized diversity and inclusion, and we’re working to extend our guidelines for race, which we should have done before now. We can invite our employee resource groups if they want to participate (for African ancestry, Latino, Asian, Indian, etc.).

We’re excited for Writer’s expansion of diversity and inclusion language editing capabilities — the technology is a great way to get started with inclusion broadly. It’s really just a no-brainer that we can all agree to as policy and use as a foundation to build from and give us momentum.

We can, for example, rely on Writer to help flag words and phrases that have negative connotations, bias, or history that we’re not aware of. When I learned about the origins of “handicapped,” my heart sank.

In some ways, Writer is like a “privilege checker”. Since everyone sits on different points of overlapping social categories, you can’t avoid having blindspots. But then you have to go learn about them, too. 

What’s an example of a word that you’ve removed from the Intuit style guide?

We changed “disabled” when referring to functionality that’s “grayed out.” 

We also have to keep the potential dangers in mind — we can’t just treat guidelines as a tool or a box to check. We can’t just think, “OK, we removed all the problematic words — everything’s fine.” There’s an additive action, too. This isn’t just about whether we cause offense or harm, but also how do we validate and affirm?

It’s no secret that the tech industry has work to do. Language is part of the larger experience that we create. We have a responsibility as content creators to be the change we want to see in language. 

Writer is really useful when partnered with the human aspect of creating and designing experiences. It gives us a baseline. 

We have a responsibility as content creators to be the change we want to see in language.Click To Tweet

Industry-wide, content strategists are talking about changing terminology that’s rooted in racist meanings — such as the words “blacklist” and “whitelist.” How are you handling this?

We’ve had a lot of discussion around “blacklist” and “whitelist”, and have a couple of options for replacement: “blocked” and “trusted”, “allowed” and “denied”. Also “master admin” — couldn’t that just be “admin?” We’re talking with our engineers about changing this terminology wherever it appears in our product and site content. 

The importance of language and meaning is an ongoing conversation for us and our engineers. For the content folks, language and words are P0, but to engineers, language is a P3. 

The language we use, as people, is from a larger culture and a point in time. We encourage everyone to come out and participate.

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