Culture and Talent

‘Design is a competitive advantage’: How three banks are integrating design into customer experience

  • These days banks talk a lot about the customer experience, co-creation and thinking like a startup. It's all part of design thinking.
  • Design thinking isn't new, but it's new to banks, and it's helping them move on their new mission to serve the customer before anything else.
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‘Design is a competitive advantage’: How three banks are integrating design into customer experience

Despite all the hype around transformative technologies or the fact that consumers aren’t actually using any “fintech,” the dinosaurs of the financial world are changing from the inside out, putting the customer experience before their business — and design thinking is at the forefront of that.

It’s optimistic, but also just a new way (for banks) of doing business. They’ve realized they no longer dictate how they do business and what they produce; their customers do. In a digital world filled with choice, banks’ customers need choice, empathy and ease of use designed into every interaction they have with the bank — and they need to deliver on that quickly, before their competitors, which now include retailers and other non-banks.

Design thinking is moving bank operations away from “managing” and more toward innovating. For example, banks co-create products with customers in order to integrate their feedback more quickly and more frequently, instead of some far off time when a product s due for an upgrade. They’re deliberately hiring teams with diverse backgrounds to reflect the diverse customers they serve and build solutions with empathy, instead building teams of people with similar backgrounds and strengths. When they build new products, they’re collaborating with other parts of the organization and even with other financial services providers, instead of working independently in silos that don’t communicate with each other, which drags the delivery process at every stage.

“There is no greater trojan horse to change an organization than design thinking,” said Stephen Gates, head of Citi Design. “Especially with something where there are lawyers, regulators… Part of what we had to do was change thinking, not behavior. If it’s new behavior on old thinking, we didn’t really change anything.”

Here are three banks going all in on their design people — finding experts, training non-experts, cultivating internal communities — to make their organizations and customer interactions stronger.

BBVA
Spanish banking giant BBVA is training 1,000 staff ‘ambassadors’ to spread good design practice throughout the organization, Rob Brown, head of marketing, design and responsible business at BBVA, said Thursday at Experience Fighters.

Brown, who BBVA poached from Barclays last year, said the most innovative and exciting products on the market are those created at places that incorporate design in every part of the organization, not just the creative department.

“These companies understand that design is a competitive advantage and that all employees, regardless of their role, should begin to see themselves as a designer that contributes to improving the customer experience,” he said.

BBVA currently has 150 designers in 11 countries, but as part of the design ambassador pilot it will train “up to” 1,000 more from various parts of the organization, by promoting design thinking courses and providing training for the “non-designers” to apply design thinking to their day-to-day work.

“My goal is that our more than 900 projects around the world be undertaken using Design Thinking, and that our professionals have fun doing so,” he said.

USAA
In February USAA unveiled its 120-person design studio in Austin to focus on improving digital experiences among customers and employees.

The bank, historically a leader in financial services innovation — it was one of the first banks to get into mobile check deposit and online banking, for example — sees people and internal culture as the essence of how it design translates to their customers. So it chose Austin, a tech hotbed, for its design community, versus its home base in sleepy San Antonio.

Their goal, like all banks today, is to make financial planning, applying for a mortgage or choosing insurance coverage as easy calling an Uber or one-click buying off Amazon. But the reality of user experience design is often, businesses don’t experience the brand the way customers do and as a result, the work falls short.

“You have to do detailed visibility testing but also understand emotions that bring someone to an experience,” Meriah Garrett, the bank’s chief design officer, told Tearsheet at the time. “If it’s an in-and-out transaction, like trying to make sure you get your bill pay right, it’s all about speed and clarity.”

Appropriateness is the key design principle, she said. “It comes down to how you apply things appropriately… That drives me to why we have to have really good people.”

Citi
In October 2015, Citi launched its FinTech unit to act as a startup inside a bank dedicated to mobile-first solutions for its consumer banking customers. A month before that, Citi’s Gates joined the bank as part of the then 40-person Citi FinTech unit, to lead its in-house design studios as well as external agencies. His team has designed the user experiences for Citi.com’s various updates, the Citi mobile app and worked on the branding and advertising for Citi FinTech, the Citi Innovation Labs and the Citi Global Consumer Bank.

A deal signed that with the design consultant Ideo, in which it would train Citi employees on design thinking, has been a tremendous force in Citi’s innovation strategy, Gates said in January at the Design+Finance conference. The two have been working together to create a version of design thinking with agile methods for innovation that’s unique to Citi. Gates said he hopes his team would take the lead on spreading innovation across Citi.

“[Design thinking] gives everyone permission to come into that process, to participate. So instead of me going to legal and saying ‘will you approve this, yes or no?’ Come be part of the process. And then I can tap into the base thing: people will psychologically support what they’re part of. That was a massive transformation… ‘Creative’ isn’t a department anymore.”

Since then, the demand for the design teams’ work has grown to be the fastest growing team in the consumer bank, he says. He began the transformation by evaluating existing in-house creative talent and then re-establishing standards, culture and structures for the team. He has since hired new leadership and talent and coaches existing talent across different studios.

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