TurboTax is the leading tax preparation software that enables users to file taxes online. The product is known for eliminating friction in the filing process through the use of great design. The conversational interface eliminates archaic legalese through the use of familiar language and a coherent line of questioning — users are made to feel confident and successful every step of the way. TurboTax fundamentally transforms an overly-complex process into a delightful journey.
TurboTax became a household brand by investing heavily in human-centered design. With over a decade’s worth of user-research, usage metrics, and product refinement, they’ve learned to deeply understand their users. Armed with granular insights into how their users think, they are equipped to effortlessly hack, hijack, and exploit user behavior and psychology in the name of profit. The Dark Patterns employed by this corporate behemoth are increasingly user-hostile to those opting for the Free experience, making it nearly impossible for a cost-conscious individual to make an informed decision about whether the paid version makes sense for them.
It’s important to recognize that TurboTax is one of many tax-preparation corporations lobbying against legislation that could greatly simplify the filing process for millions of Americans. This means it’s in their best interest to perpetuate the existing convoluted tax system so that they may continue to generate massive profits each year. We’ll explore concrete examples of unethical design strategies TurboTax employs to generate these profits.
TurboTax dissuades customers from using their Free offering by exaggerating the benefits of their mid-tier (or “recommended”) paid service and by fabricating obstacles that trick users into paying for unnecessary upgrades. While the paid service offers benefits that may be applicable to some users (such as specialist support and increased security), most filers would be perfectly happy (and just as successful) filing their taxes through the Free product. Instead of surfacing this reality, TurboTax buries it by manufacturing the illusion of complexity and time-scarcity. The following UX teardown shines a critical light on these Dark Patterns, and offers users tips on how to stay in control when navigating the modern freemium landscape.
1. Welcome Back
A. Starting with a personalized greeting, TurboTax anticipates my needs by drawing on last year’s experience with a paid service (last year I had sold stock that warranted the purchase). The “Premier” product is annotated to draw my attention to it.
B. The header copy states that “Premier got you a total refund of $X”. This language attributes the total dollar amount of my refund to using TurboTax Premier. It positions the product as a wealth creator despite the reality that the money was rightfully mine to begin with (albeit on loan to the government). Note that the “Premier” product name appears 3 times on the page, including on the large CTA button above the fold — this is clearly their recommendation for me.
C. Pricing visible above the fold — It’s easy to scan left-to-right and compare the price to the secondary product offering. The $100 difference gives the advantage to “Premier” — looks like I’ll save big! What’s absent from this view is the fact that there is a Free offering. I’m made to feel that I am getting a deal when comparing the feigned upsell to the primary product recommendation. Unfortunately, users have no way of knowing that they could be saving even more at first glance.
D. Attention remains fixed above the fold. Both product offerings extend beyond, but the CTAs are clearly presented about half way down the viewport. No need to scroll. Users are encouraged to choose one of two options. Click-through friction is further mitigated by placing “Pay only when you file” copy directly below the CTA buttons. This reduces uncertainty and prevents exploration for additional pricing information.
E. This subtle “New” signifier acts as an incentive to explore the features of the secondary product offering. Though, the subdued treatment further illustrates the fact that the main objective of presenting this offering is to normalize the cost of the primary offering.
After scrolling down the page and clicking a couple of accordion elements, I finally discovered the “See other TurboTax products” button (albeit with difficulty since the clickability affordance was difficult to discern).
It’s important to explore for more options before diving in and choosing the first thing presented to you. As is the case with TurboTax, sometimes there are more options available to you than you’re made to believe. To see through this obfuscation, you’ll need to pay close attention during onboarding and signup flows. These are the places where the user has the least patience since they just want to start using the product or service. Users compulsively click through the path of least resistance with little regard for the implications. Experiences like the ones in TurboTax are designed to exploit these behaviors by laying traps that hijack your clicks. Large, brightly colored CTA buttons steal clicks from subtle secondary actions that often have a reduced click target area, dull color treatment, or no affordances at all to suggest the action is even clickable.
2. Product Recommendations
A. We’re greeted with “we’ll recommend the right solution”. TurboTax sets the tone as a trusted advisor — I am made to feel as though they’re looking out for me. Below, we see the recommended product. They’ve incorporated social proof by signifying that Deluxe is the “Most Popular”.
B. Following the instructions to “select all that apply”, I immediately click the first item in the list (“I want to maximize deductions and credits”) It’s safe to assume this is a universally appealing option. However, if the copy alone isn’t enough, the money-bag graphic certainly seals the deal by triggering a visceral reaction that subconsciously nudges the user into clicking. Selecting this option has the unfortunate side-effect of dimming and disabling all but the paid product. My focus immediately shifts to the Deluxe paid product CTA.
C. Resigned to the currently highlighted product, I notice a warm “Start for Free” CTA. The big bold button encourages a quick click-through with disregard for the price. While the price for the product is listed ($59.99), the price for State filing is not listed at all. Most users may miss that detail since “State additional” is displayed underneath in a smaller font.
It’s worth noting that the most common scenarios are presented first in the grid of options. This is purposely designed to funnel unsuspecting users directly into the paid offering. It’s an unfortunate betrayal of trust and a clear example of predatory design. This trust might be restored by providing clear explanations as to the reasons for the recommendations. For example, what is it about Deluxe that solves for my goal of maximizing deductions and credits that can’t be done through the Free product? I hypothesize that this approach would be equally abused to distort reality and funnel users toward the paid product.
3. PLUS Help & Tools
A. After discovering the “File for $0” option, I click through and am presented with what appears to be the first real step in my tax preparation process. The header clearly states that we are going to begin with “importing last year’s info!”. All of the content is above the fold, and there’s a singular primary action to “Continue”. Not much of a fuss to be made — I’m ready to get started.
B. Scanning the supplemental copy, I read that after we import some information, I’ll already be halfway done with the filing process (50% done, to be precise). Not bad! I also read that I can access TurboTax Specialists with PLUS. While not directly relevant to me, this could be reassuring to those less comfortable with the filing process.
C. The current step is labeled “+PLUS HELP & TOOLS”. The slight visual treatment is enough to suggest that we’ve progressed into a new context in the filing process. But a closer look at the muted “*Important offer details and disclosures” footnote reveals that we’re taking part in an “offer”. What does that mean? (They did a great job hiding that bit — I’ll admit: coming through this flow for the first time, I completely missed the footnote and clicked “Continue” without opening the details and disclosures.)
TurboTax creates a pleasant import experience by animating progress and surfacing relevant information as it is discovered. The well-timed transition demonstrates that TurboTax “works” on your behalf to get everything needed for you to be “50% done” filing in a matter of 5 seconds. The use of motion works particularly well in this case, animating not only the 4 major categories, but also the individual pieces of data within each category, for a total of 19 text animations. That is 19 things a user would have had to do manually if TurboTax had not imported them all in these last 5 seconds. Despite not having the network tab open for this step, I have a hard time believing that this data was fetched and received at an exact cadence as the animation would lead most users to believe. I would go as far as to say that the data may have already been present before the animation sequence began, and maybe even before landing on this page.
A. Following the import, we proceed to another animated view. Here we see TurboTax “Adding” help and tools. Surprisingly, they’ve added “50% done” (which we just did in the previous step). Does that qualify as help or a tool? Either way, it’s been added, and of course, animated — along with its sub-bullets — to demonstrate how much work has been done on our behalf in just a few seconds. I question whether TurboTax truly values my time if they just spent unnecessary animation frames reiterating the same information as the previous step.
B. In this step, “PLUS help & tools” takes a more prominent role in the header with a larger size and heavier weight. What initially seemed like a friendly name for importing last year’s tax information is starting to live up the “offer” subtext. The use of supporting graphics, copy, bullets, and animation for each “help” or “tool” suggests that we might be entering upsell territory.
A. We’re presented with a summary of the imported information. This gives me a chance to review all of the work that was just done for me. Note the language “we’ve got your info”; TurboTax already has all of this without me having to track down last year’s information and provide it manually. The implication of this language, however, is that TurboTax maintains ownership over this info.
B. Again, we’re presented with the grid of time-saving help and tools provided by TurboTax. Note the language here as well: “Your … tools”, “be 50% done”, “get more help”. The implication is that these tools are already mine. I’m already 50% done. I already have access to more help and tools. Since I never opted into this flow, nor did I explicitly opt-in to an upgrade, it’s reasonable to assume that at this step, I currently maintain ownership over these tools.
A. Below the fold, there’s some friendly copy reminding me what I get by having my information automatically transferred. I save time, can rest assured I’m getting the best tax breaks, and I’m getting the biggest refund. TurboTax knows that I care about two things: time and money. For an extra personal touch, they mention that they can help update anything that’s changed. TurboTax anticipates that my situation may have changed, and they’re offering to help make this as frictionless as possible.
B. The standard primary action is tied to the heading, “Things are looking good!” Based on this language and single action, I’m working under the assumption that this is a standard component of the TurboTax filing process through, so I click “Continue” to keep going.
A. We’re presented with a product matrix. The main heading assures us that we get to keep our 50% head start with PLUS in an attempt to downplay the fact that this may be a paid upgrade.
B. The recommended product is presented as the middle column in the product matrix. The vibrant blue outline draws our attention to the center and toward the included features such as “50% done” and “Specialist support”. To the left, TurboTax FREE EDITION does not include any of these features. PLUS has the advantage.
C. TurboTax Deluxe costs $59.99 for federal filing, while state filing costs extra. Above the fold, we see all of the same features as PLUS, so there’s really no advantage to Deluxe. PLUS is the clear winner in terms of both features and cost.
D. Above the fold, there is still no evidence that there are any associated costs with the prior import and tools included with PLUS.
A. Finally, the big reveal: $29.99 for PLUS. A bold, vibrant blue treatment makes the price less offensive compared to the gray $59.99 in the neighboring cell. Notice that “FREE” uses a lighter font weight so that the eye is not drawn to this cell.
B. The bright orange “Keep PLUS” CTA is likely to receive clicks from unsuspecting users, while the ghost button CTAs have less visual weight and therefore receive less attention.
Note the language in the CTA: “Keep” implies that you already have PLUS. All of the imported information and tools could continue to be yours. All you have to do is pay. This technique, known as Transparent Fencing, aims to demonstrate value and convey ownership by putting paid features and benefits out in the open instead of hiding or obscuring them behind an Opaque Fence. Since the user can easily see the benefits in plain sight, they are more willing to pay for the features when prompted to upgrade. TurboTax is careful to use the word “Keep” for the $29.99 product while the $59.99 product is an “Upgrade”. PLUS is implicitly NOT an upsell.
Finally, the language and implications for the free offering are negative and painful. “Start over” — TurboTax knows that our users care about time, yet taking the free route means we’ll have to start again. They’ve managed to bake a price into this CTA: time. They’re betting that users’ time is even more costly than the $29.99 price tag on PLUS. The text below the CTA further emphasizes the cost associated with Free: “Delete your info and start from scratch”. They make a point to illustrate that it is the user who will be deleting all of the imported information and starting from scratch by picking this option. TurboTax has their hands tied and you’re responsible if you want to take this route.
C. As a bonus, the copy below the paid products aims to dispel any concerns about costs by mentioning that you can worry about this later and even deduct it from your tax return, essentially making them free. This might persuade a cost-conscious individual to proceed along the paid path.
Finally, the most painful part of the journey: Users must sit through a 10-second animation of the removal of last year’s data, help, and tools. This step makes it clear that TurboTax does not value free users’ time and that they are hostile toward cost-conscious individuals. In the extreme case, users with no choice but to seek free filing tools are forced through this funnel, shown what they could have, and then stripped of any benefits afforded only to those privileged enough to pay. It’s both painful and embarrassing. In the average case, it’s a time-wasting trick and a last-ditch effort to convert freemium users into paying customers — time is stolen, bottled, and sold right back to unsuspecting filers.
TurboTax believes in the value of their premium product experience without expressing the value and utility of their free offering. They go to great lengths to hide free as a possibility, only revealing this option to describe the benefits of the paid offering. At $59.99 for Deluxe, plus $29.99 for PLUS Help & Tools, their recommended product and add-on combo is viewed as a necessary cost by most users looking to meet their otherwise insurmountable filing obligations. Fearful that they might face legal recourse by misreporting, these vulnerable users do not stop to question the price or search for alternatives.
TurboTax abuses its position as a trusted advisor by steering users away from their excellent free product and berates users for thinking they can be successful without paid add-ons. This disrespect for the user is unhealthy and creates a toxic relationship between brand and customer. Instead of this coercive approach, how might TurboTax better respect purchasing preferences and start building healthier relationships with its customers?
They’re in need of some blue-sky thinking to address the challenges associated with this changing customer landscape. Millennials rightly demand more from their products and services than any generation before, and are increasingly skeptical toward disingenuous brands like Walmart and McDonalds. They abhor deceit and trickery, and increasingly gravitate toward brands that align with their values. If TurboTax aims to maintain their market lead and brand integrity, they’ll need to embrace these expectations. If they wish to be seen as a trusted advisor, they’ll need to earn this trust by learning to genuinely respect all customers, not just those they’ve tricked into paying.