An Idea to Reduce the Newbie Pain for Quicken Users

I think Quicken is a great piece of software. I did not think this at first – initially it just caused me a lot of user-pain.

Quicken, to me, is in a unique position as a consumer product. Consumers (and by that, I mean people who do not care to spend much time troubleshooting and administering technical problems) should get a simple experience. In the realm of personal finance software, there really is no market, at first, since anything that software can do can be done by people directly. So personal finance software has to give people a reason to prefer to do their personal finance tasks on a clunky old (or new!) computer. There’s going to be a certain amount of “friction” involved in that process, so vendors who produce software like Quicken need to fight a tough uphill battle to make it both easy and useful. Particularly so in the case of Quicken since the software has to wrestle with a wide variety of financial data sources which don’t necessarily play nice or communicate neatly.

It’s as if a hardware store’s mission was to sell a hammer that could drive anything into the ground – not just neat little nails. I hope this explains why I have such high standards for Quicken.

The Download Problem

A common newbie problem with Quicken, I believe (and you can get some evidence of this by reading the public or Inner Circle forums), is the “download problem”. Transactions sometimes just don’t update in your register the way you would expect. There are a wide variety of reasons why this might happen – and again, it is an extremely complex problem for the Quicken software to attempt to avoid entirely. But there are a few obvious places where some improvements can be made.

For example, there are three ways (outside of completely manual entry) to get data into Quicken:

  • Web Connect
  • Express Web Connect
  • Direct Connect

There are a lot of subtleties in the three methods, which I won’t try to explain again here. Instead you might refer to the following Intuit support article: How Quicken Connects to Your Bank.

The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that if you really want things to work well then you need to be using “Direct Connect”. It’s not entirely helpful to say that, because usually your choice will be pre-determined by whatever your bank supports. But I think it is good to keep in mind that if you are not using Direct Connect, then you shouldn’t waste too much time troubleshooting download problems, since you are likely to have them from time to time. Of course, if you have a persistent download problem you should troubleshoot it (if you care about it) – Quicken does seem to be solid enough that any persistent problem can be resolved and at least reduced to an occasional problem. Which is a very good thing! 🙂

Consumer Software Should Hold the Consumer’s Hand – A Lot

The main gripe I have about the situation in Quicken, however, is that there could be a lot more information provided in the user interface to help a user understand what is going on. In a product like Quicken – where, again, the primary goal is to convince users that it is worthwhile to do with software what could just as reasonably be done without software – it’s no good to expect users to dig around in help files or to search out the support forums in order to get past fairly mundane software or usability glitches. But on the other hand, the problems that Quicken does attempt to tackle are complex enough so that it really doesn’t make much sense to try to completely solve them with better programming.

Sometimes all you need to do in software is know the right time to pop-up and say to the user, “Look – this part you are doing here is very complex and we just can’t make sure it works well all the time. Here are the things you should look out for. We hope it doesn’t cause you too much pain as a user.”

You know – the kind of advice that you would get from a person (if that person were being honest).

Consumer Software Should Not Be Too Quirky

What is “too quirky”?

Well, my own particular pet peeve for one of these sorts of issues is that, in certain cases, Quicken does not support the following characters in a password: “<“, “>”, “&”. It can take you a long time to figure out what is happening here, but the issue was finally written-up in the following article, which is really pretty muddy about describing what the problem is to a consumer: Unable to setup Express Web Connect or no transactions download.

Why not title the article more simply as: “Sometimes Quicken just can’t figure out what to do with your password”?

A Nice Spring Walk Can Solve Any Technology Problem!

Probably, this is just a reminder that, even though we depend increasingly on software systems to do our work and play, and often feel bad about ourselves if we aren’t as “smart” as the computer, the darned truth is – the computer is almost never right, in any kind of lasting way.

When in doubt, you are probably best off by assuming that the software (even a great product like Quicken) is just wrong. And then go out for a walk on a nice Spring day, as I am about to do. 🙂


Three Things I Wish I Knew About Quicken

I first used Quicken sometime in 2009. For me, the software was overwhelming and quirky to the point of not being useful. But I really wanted something other than Mint, since Mint’s user interface was driving me bonkers. I still think it jumps around too much. Mint is beautiful, graphically, but it jumps all over the place in weird ways, in my opinion.

More recently, I have developed a healthy relationship with Mint and use it as a nice way to get lots of personal finance reports, and to get ideas for things to do with my money. And the truth is, the user interface task of Mint is less complex than Quicken’s. Quicken just “does” more.

But Quicken’s interface needs help in a few areas. For example, I talked about the benefit of adding some key pop-up messages in An Idea to Reduce the Newbie Pain for Quicken Users.

The Limits of User Frustration

I eventually gave up on Intuit software.

Quicken 2009 just did not work reliably. Later that year, I upgraded to Quicken 2010, hoping that the bugs in the 2009 version had been fixed. They were not, but I stumbled along, learning more about the software. I looked for good books and online resources to help me gain some comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of the software, but all I could find were the very basic Quicken manuals offered at the local book stores and on Amazon. None of them told me anything particularly useful. I also could not find any dedicated Quicken blog, other than the official one, which is really just a marketing vehicle. (Contrast that with Mint’s blog, which is a treasure trove of useful personal finance knowledge.)

Pushing forward, I eventually found the Quicken support forums and something called the “Quicken Inner Circle”. As support forums, these of course would require a significant amount of time to get acclimated and understand how to find useful information within the mountains and piles of topics and posts. Not very helpful to me, who really had three simple problems that were bugging me enough that I again upgraded to the latest version (Quicken 2011) in hopes that the “bugs” I thought I had found would finally be fixed.

Well, Quicken 2011 had the same problems. By this point it was clear that my albatross of bugs were not on anyone’s radar. And finally I began to find the time to dig deeper into the problems.

Quicken’s One-Step Update Problems

Here are the three problems that caused me a lot of user pain over more than two years:

  • If your data file has a password, then your scheduled overnight transaction download will fail silently. You will wonder why.
  • If you try a One-Step Update of transactions, and for some reason some transactions are missed, Quicken will never try to get those again, no matter how many times you bang on the One-Step Update button. It will fail silently about this.
  • Quicken does not support “special characters” in passwords. For example, “&$@*” is no good. If your bank’s password has “special characters”, then Quicken will fail silently every time it tries to get new transactions.

Updated April 21, 2011: I believe the information above re: “special characters” is slightly wrong. Further discussion in the Quicken Inner Forum (requires free membership to view) led to an Intuit Support articlebeing posted which clarified that the problem occurs in certain cases due to just the following character, which can break XML parsing: “

By the way, I, personally, think software that fails silently is dumb. Software should never fail silently, unless the failure is not important, which, of course, begs the question of why you would call it a failure.

And the solutions to these silent failures:

  • Remove the password from your data file.
  • Reset the DTSTART to force Quicken to try again on older downloads.
  • Remove the special characters from all your passwords.

The Bright Side of Quicken – It’s Really Cool Software!

Now, finally, I can begin to enjoy more the amazing product which I realize Quicken to be. Among the useful features, many of which take a good amount of investment of time and thought to learn how to use well:

  • It has some great online research features for investments.
  • Cool budget tools.
  • Reports, reports, reports! Finally you can go into that family argument about finances with some pretty graphs to backup your nonsensical comments. 😉
  • Tax reporting. If you carefully categorize transactions during the year, then it will really pay off around tax time since you can import a lot of useful data into TurboTax.


A Magical Rabbit from Amazon’s Customer Service Hat

I am lazy when it comes to shopping. Or maybe it’s just that I have so many other things I would rather do. I look for ways to reduce the effort of shopping whenever I can.

So last year I decided to spring for the Amazon Prime shipping program – it seemed like a great tool for a lazy shopper like me. This means I pay a certain amount per year in a flat fee, and for that I get free two-day shipping on almost everything I am interested in buying from Amazon.

And you know what? Now I buy LOTS more from Amazon than I ever did before. Need soap? Order a case on Amazon. Need cat food? Order a case on Amazon.

It used to be that I would only order from Amazon the things that I want. Now I order the things that I need, even if I need them sort of urgently. Because they’ll be here in two days, whereas I would probably get to the store.. sometime later this week or over the following weekend. It’s gone really smoothly – I am a happy Amazon Prime member because it gets the store out of the way so I can get straight to the merchandise.

But recently my order of canned cat food had a problem: half the cans were significantly damaged. Great – now what do I do?

So I check my Amazon orders online, start clicking around on things like “Leave packaging feedback” and “Return an item”. Turns out I can easily leave feedback on the packaging, but that the item is not eligible for return. To be honest, that’s fine with me because I’ve never understood the benefit to a customer in having to package up and ship back a damaged order – I’d obviously much prefer to just get a refund for the damaged stuff.

But in this case it looks like maybe that won’t happen, since cat food is considered a grocery item and grocery items are not considered for return. I am beginning to wonder how much time it is worth spending on the roughly $6 of merchandise (half the order) which was damaged.

But then Amazon pulls another one of its magical rabbits out of its customer service hat: Just minutes after sending my packaging feedback online, during the middle of probably the busiest week of Amazon’s year (Christmas), my half-hearted request for a refund of the damaged stuff is answered with a personally written email, in which I am told that a credit will show on my account in a few days. I am told I don’t have to ship back the damaged stuff (i.e., I can just toss it in the garbage where it really belongs).

Let me be very clear: Amazon did exactly what I as a customer expected. In the business relationship that I have with them as a vendor, they treated me with the same respect that I treat them. Cash for merchandise, no cash for damaged goods. Brilliant!

Now, what else can I buy from this wonderful vendor?