Intuit is strongly emphasizing QuickBooks Online as the future for their accounting products, but it has been dogged by questions about performance, an old-looking user interface, and the lack of “breadth” of the product. Today Intuit is starting to release a major overhaul of QuickBooks Online that goes a long way towards addressing some of these concerns.
There are two major areas of focus in this release:
- An improved user interface: This is a major QuickBooks Online user interface update, a complete overhaul. The “classic” user interface has grown over the years and was getting unwieldy, and it just looks “old”. As we’ll see, Intuit has put a lot of effort into making features easier to find, decreasing the clutter, and making it easier to navigate throughout the product.
- Significant improvements in performance: That has been one of the drawbacks to QuickBooks Online in the past – some things are just too slow. Any user moving up to QuickBooks Online from the desktop product would be unhappy with how long it takes screens to refresh, how long it takes for information to be presented. Speed is an important consideration – and Intuit has put a lot of effort into solving this problem.
The third area that I mentioned as a problem with QuickBooks Online is the “breadth of the product”. By this I mean the number of features, data fields, reports and operations that you can perform with the product. QuickBooks Online compares very favorably with other Online Accounting programs, but if you compare the feature list with QuickBooks Desktop you find that it just doesn’t provide as many features. This release doesn’t address the “breadth” of the product (although there are some nice email improvements), but the framework has been laid for significant improvements as QuickBooks Online moves forward. This release addresses things that have to be resolved before you start tacking on other features.
Since I was running a Beta Test copy of the product, there may be some differences in what you see vs. the screen shots shown here. This has been a moving target as they have been rolling out revisions quite often during the beta test period.
Please note that Intuit will be rolling out this new version to US based users over a period of several months. Some new users will see it soon, some will not. Existing QBO users will be given the opportunity to switch, later this year or possibly next year. Existing users won’t be forced into this right away, although I’m sure that eventually everyone will end up here. It will also be rolled out to most (not quite all) English-language international versions in this same timeframe, with other languages following at a later date.
First Off – What Do I Think Of This?
I’ll say this up front – I like a lot of what they have done. I think these are very useful changes. I will admit that I haven’t used this very long, but the advantages are very obvious.
Any time Intuit makes a major change in the user interface of a product, people will be unhappy. Look at the hullaballoo over the user interface changes in QuickBooks Desktop 2013. If you are used to the way a product works, changes can be disruptive. However, in this case, it is time for the QuickBooks Online user interface to be updated.
Are there major new functions? Does this add true job costing, better inventory management, features for non profits? No – and that is fine – as long as they move on to the kinds of feature that people feel are lacking now that they have cleaned house. It would be a big mess if they tried to add a major feature with the old user interface – then they would have a lot more work to do to change the UI later on. Get this done now, get the performance issues addressed, THEN start adding the important missing pieces. This is a good base to move forward from.
Did we lose anything? No, as far as I can tell. This isn’t a totally new product, it is the same underlying database and system and all of the features you are used to now should all still be there. Add-on products should all still work as before.
Improved User Interface – “Harmony”
The biggest noticeable change in this release is the new user interface. Intuit is trying to build some commonality between all of their online products under the code name of “Harmony”. You’ll see an increasing use of the same colors (“Harmony Blue”, for example), fonts and graphics. Possibly some navigational elements as well. User interface elements are the most obvious, but I expect that you’ll also see a tighter integration on the feature and data element level down the line as well. Intuit products will work more closely together to create a more seamless workflow by sharing data. To a degree, QuickBooks Desktop is moving in this direction too.
QuickBooks Online Classic
Let’s start off by looking at a few user interface/navigation concepts in the prior, or “Classic” version of QuickBooks Online. Note that my terminology here is my own, you probably won’t see Intuit referring to the different versions this way (“Classic” vs. “Harmony”).
Here’s the “home page” in QuickBooks Online Classic. You have a row of tabs across the top, which has been growing over the years. Under each tab is a menu bar, which also has been growing over the years. The “More” menu option has additional menu functions, and that list gets longer as they add new features. Relying on “More” has obscured many functions.
Many of these screen shots are quite large – click on them to see a larger version.
You have “quick links” , shortcuts, that show on some pages but not others. You have additional links and dropdowns in the upper right corner. Things seem to be scattered about a bit – typical of what you see when you have a program that has been around for a few years (since 2000) and people keep adding new things where they can.
Looking at a transaction window, often you find that you have to scroll down to find the buttons for saving, printing and otherwise manipulating the transaction.
QuickBooks Online Harmony
Now let’s take a look at the same screens in QuickBooks Online Harmony (which isn’t the “official” name of this, I am using that to make the distinction between old and new). Here’s the “home page”, which looks quite different.
- Instead of a tab bar across the top with a variety of menus underneath for tasks, we have a navigation bar on the left. This is usually not cluttered up with sub-items, other than the Transactions item that I have expanded. This is simpler and conserves space, directing you to major areas of the program.
- There is a standard “Quick Create” navigation aid at the top center (more on this later) that is found on all main pages, so you can consistently find it to navigate wherever you are.
- The top right corner of the screen isn’t cluttered with multiple dropdown menus and links, there is one simplified access point.
- The home page is less cluttered than before, and serves as a “dashboard” giving you a summary of your account.
Looking at a transaction, the most obvious change is that the action buttons at the bottom are always visible even if you resize the window. You don’t have to scroll down to see the actions, which I consider to be a major improvement.
You can see that there is more space in the detail lines and around the fields, which is consistent with the direction that Intuit is going in other products.
If you look at different transaction windows in the new program you will notice that there is a concerted effort to make the layout of all transaction windows to be as uniform as possible. Features will usually show in the same location. You’ll see the same buttons. With the Classic version you didn’t always know what you would find when you go from one transaction to another.
What’s The Big Deal?
OK, so there are some things rearranged, perhaps it doesn’t look like it is that big of a change? Let’s dig in a bit more, you’ll start to see the differences.
Click on the gear symbol in the upper right, and you get a display of many of the maintenance/preference kinds of tasks that were scattered about in the Classic version, all in one easy-to-use menu. In Classic, these features are found in three different links/menus in the upper right, in the Company tab (some in the main menu, some hidden in the More menu), in the Banking tab (More menu), in the footer of the home page (you have to scroll down), and more. It takes awhile to find all of these maintenance/setup features in the Classic version – in QuickBooks Online Harmony they are all gathered in one easy to find place.
At the top center of the main screens (those that you find by selecting from the left navigation bar) you see the “Quick Create” navigation aid. This is a handy feature that includes the search function, a list of recent transactions, and (most importantly) your list of tasks.
Clicking on the center portion of this feature opens your task or create transaction menu. One easy-to-use place that lists the transactions you can create, rather than having to click on various tabs trying to find the right page. This resolves one of the problems that I have had with QuickBooks Online – figuring out which tab to use to find a particular task or transaction.
Static screen shots don’t show you some of the neat features of the task menu and transaction windows. If you select a task, the window for that task drops down from the top of the screen. You can enter your transaction, then save and close, and the window scrolls back up. This returns you to the location that you were at before, so you can continue working. In Classic you didn’t always have an easy path to get back to where you started – you might be using the back arrow, you might have to click on another tab or menu, but it wasn’t always clear. With Harmony, you’re always brought back to your starting point. To see this in action, view the short video below.
Another interesting user interface change is the “Panel” – an information pane that will slide in from the right side of the screen in certain situations, to provide you with information related to the task you are performing. For example, in the check window, once you select the payee, the Panel will slide in from the write and show you the other open bills that could be paid. Just click the Add link to easily add them to the check.
The “Panel” (which I referred to as the “drawer” in the video, which was an older name for that) is intriguing. Intuit is using this to provide additional information that you might want in relation to a particular transaction, such as additional bills to include in a check. It seems to be that this would be a great place for add-on applications to provide additional information, if Intuit were to allow add-ons to integrate with QBO in the user interface. This has been an area where Intuit hasn’t done very well in the past – allowing add-ons a way to actually fit in to the QB user experience. They have held developers off, perhaps this “panel” would be a way for them to work more closely?
The “Quick Create” navigation aid at the top of the window has several functions, and it is always available (unless you are in the middle of a transaction). I already talked about the center portion, where you get a menu of transactions. The other functions are “search” and “recent transactions”.
The “search” function opens a simple window that allows you to search by transaction number. For me, that is too limited. You can click on the “advanced search” link, but that takes too many clicks (I found that I was always going to advanced search).
You can click the advanced search link at the bottom to get something more sophisticated:
The other option is “recent transactions”, which I found to be VERY useful.
Customers Page and Vendors Page
In the Classic version we had a Customer Center and Income List, and then a Vendor List for vendors. With QuickBooks Online Harmony, if you select Customers or Vendors from the Navigation Bar, you get something very similar to the Income List from before – the Customers Page and the Vendors Page.
I like the graphic “dashboard” presentation across the top, and with Harmony they have added this to Vendors as well. A big difference, though, is how the info is shown below the bar. In Classic, you have a list of transactions, selected by the bar element that you click on. In Harmony you get a customer list, showing you some summary information. This is combining the Customer List and Income List into one option. If you click on any of the colored blocks this will filter the list for that type of record.
I like this kind of dashboard-like approach very much. I do think that there could be more flexibility in configuring the list – sorting just by clicking on a column heading, more options for adding columns, more filtering options, things along those lines. I expect we’ll see more as time goes on.
I mentioned this briefly before – transaction windows are organized the same way, so there is a uniform appearance for each kind of transaction as you enter data. They all have a header, a detail section, a footer, with similar layouts of buttons and fields. QuickBooks Online Classic isn’t as uniform.
In addition, when you are adding records to lists, the approach used in each list type in Harmony is more uniform than Classic. In Classic, sometimes when you add a list item you get a window, sometimes you get a series of questions in multiple windows (compare adding an account in the COA with adding a customer, for example). In Harmony things seem to be much more consistent and uniform. In each list adding a new record will always pop up a window with a similar layout, for example.
These kinds of changes are important, so that you always know what to expect and where to find things.
There are some MAJOR CHANGES here – and this is a bit of a moving target as the details have changed several times during the “testing” period where I was accessing this prior to the official release.
I will have an article about this later this week. In summary, the entire process of sending an invoice to your client has been changed, and there are some significant new features here:
- You can change information in the email message that goes out, rather than having to change your email preferences.
- You can preview the PDF of the email message before it goes out.
- There is a new option for letting the customer view the invoice online, and then paying it online.
- In that new online view/pay feature there is a mechanism for exchanging messages between you and your customer in relation to the specific transaction, and the “correspondence” will show right in the invoice transaction window in QBO.
There is a lot going on here, and it looks VERY interesting!
This is an area that has been upgraded quite a bit.
Here’s the Classic report page:
And here is what you see in Harmony.
Now we have “My Custom Reports” instead of “Memorized Reports”, but the functionality seems to be the same.
Performance is something that is very hard to measure – there are so many factors and it is very hard to measure actual “speed” of some operations.
In general, I believe that you’ll notice that performance is improved. Intuit has reworked QuickBooks Online to use a variety of new technologies that are aimed at improving performance in web based programs.
Simply put, Intuit has put a lot of effort into optimizing the flow of data between the “server” (Intuit’s system) and the “client” (your computer or tablet), and utilizes the latest in browser technologies. This is the reason why you’ll not be able to use the program with older browsers – they don’t support these old technologies.
If you are a techie like me, here is a more detailed look at the technologies being used:
- Rendering of screen information is being done client-side, which means that the power of the computer that you are using to access the product is being harnessed. This is why there are some restrictions as to what browser you can use, as they are using features only found in more modern browsers.
- The are working to minimize the amount of data being transmitted from the server to your desktop. Data can be very “wordy”, so Intuit uses a technique called “compressed JSON“, which compresses and reduces the actual volume of the data to move. By compressing the info, it takes less time to move that same amount of data, thereby making the information show up on your screen faster.
- CSS3 Transitions are, essentially, a way to control “animations” in a web page. Intuit has worked very hard to optimize these transitions in a way that will rely on the graphic properties (GPU) of your computer to speed things up.
- The new interface uses HTML5, which again is a reason why older browsers aren’t supported (since older ones don’t support HTML5). In addition to being faster, this allows QBO to run on tablet browsers.
- There is also a concerted effort in changing workflows to require fewer mouse clicks and page loads to accomplish tasks.
Changes in Setting Up a New Company
This is something that I tested earlier in the “beta test” process, so there may well be some differences with the first public release. This is also an area where I expect Intuit to continue fine-tuning things.
In my test situation I imported a file from QuickBooks Desktop. Many of the preferences in my new QuickBooks Online file were set based on the information found in my desktop file. One difference that I noted was that the track quantity on hand preference was enabled when importing into QuickBooks Online Harmony, where it is not enabled if you convert with QuickBooks Online Classic. That is nice.
If, however, you are starting a new company file (rather than importing from QuickBooks Desktop) you will see a new process called “personalization”. According to Intuit
“Personalization is meant to create a “right for me” experience for every user. Our vision is that over time, QuickBooks should learn to adapt to the user rather than the user having to learn to adapt to Quickbooks. We can accomplish this by tapping into the data from the hundreds of thousands of companies using QuickBooks Online and millions of companies in the QuickBooks family.“
What I saw in this early release was that I entered some early information about my company, and then QuickBooks set up some basic settings (including the starting Chart of Accounts) based on profiles of existing users that are similar.
Certainly this made the setup process easier, and for many small business owners this could be useful. I’m not entirely comfortable with the process – I would like to have a report that I could print that would show me what selections were made. It is difficult to go back to the Preferences section and go through all the settings to review what was done (the list shown on the screen is only a summary, I don’t think it lists ALL of the settings made). I also think it would be nice if they made suggestions, and listed them, with the option to accept them or not. However, I’ll admit, I’m a ProAdvisor and I understand the product, so I’m not the person that “personalization” is aimed at.
Note that Intuit is still working on improving things, and that much of the time I have spent up until now has been with a beta test copy of the product – some of these issues might be resolved very soon. ALSO – Intuit is certain to be fine-tuning this as they expose more and more users to the new system. One of the reasons to roll this out over time is to get feedback and fix problems as they go along.
- Personalization is an interesting concept, using information from the collective database of QuickBooks Online users, but I would like to see options to allow a bit more control (or at least to let us see what was chosen for us).
- Navigation still has some little kinks to work out (and some will be soon, I’m sure, moving forward). I like how transaction windows drop down as an overlay, but there are some little glitches to work out. If I create a transaction and that window closes, I am returned to my starting base page (which is good). But if I click a back arrow, I shouldn’t see that transaction window drop down again. This is not a big deal.
- I work with lists quite a bit, so I would like to see lists as a tab in the left navigation bar, rather than up in the setup/maintenance menu in the upper right. Again, this is not a big deal.
- I mentioned how adding records to Lists was improved by making the process uniform across lists – there is still a bit of room for improvement if you truly want to be consistent. Most Lists show a list of records, then a row of buttons (“New”, “Edit”, “Delete” and so forth). Except for two – customers and vendors. Here you have a different button that just lets you add a new record. Finding how to delete a vendor, for example, took some hunting. To be uniform, the customer and vendor list should have the same buttons as the other lists.
- The Search function works well, but when you click the search icon it defaults to just a search by transaction number. I would rather that this defaults to the “advanced search”, as I rarely am searching just by transaction number.
These aren’t show-stopping issues – they are minor quibbles about how the program works. I’ve only been working with this update for a short time, but I’m very impressed by how well it seems to be working.
This last point isn’t an “issue”, really, but do be aware that you need to have a “current” browser to run this update (here’s what I get with IE 9). As I mentioned above, the performance improvements require a “modern browser”, so you have to be up to date on your release of any of the browsers.
What About QuickBooks Online for Accountants?
Yes, there are changes for QuickBooks Online for Accountants – primarily the same kind of user interface changes.
- The Accountant Home is a replacement for the prior Accountant Center, and it has a totally new look, less cluttered. The last I looked at this you couldn’t configure this to show what you want, which is a bit disappointing. This shows you some summary information, some settings, and a list of the accounts and their reconciliation status.
- The left navigation bar has a tab for Accountant, which has sub menus for Accountant Home and Book to tax (which transfers the company tax info to an Intuit tax product).
- In the menu that shows in the top right (from the gear icon, where settings and such are found) there is a section for the Accountant that includes a number accountant-specific links.
- One of the options in that accountant section of the menu is a link to open a new window.
- The Reports page has a section for accountant reports.
I’m being a bit vague because I was only able to see an early revision of QBOA in the Harmony release, and Intuit has been making a lot of changes based on the feedback of the people testing it.
We’ll see how this plays out. I think that Intuit’s plan is good – revitalize and clean up the user interface, work on performance issues now, so that you have a solid base on which to move forward. This is a good start, but Intuit can’t stop here. Now they have to develop the “breadth of product” so that QuickBooks Online can fit a wider range of business needs than it does now – as well as work on data center reliability and “up time”.