The Customer Effect

Inside USAA’s new 120-person Austin design studio

  • San Antonio-based USAA launched a design studio in Austin to focus on improving digital experiences among customers and employees
  • The bank is using new technologies to do impactful work, but relying on the empathy of its staff to tap into what motivates customers.
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Inside USAA’s new 120-person Austin design studio

Finance giant USAA is amping up its customer experience focus with a new design studio in Austin to house the 120 people it has focused on improving digital experiences.  The goal is to make financial planning, applying for a mortgage or choosing insurance coverage as easy as ordering up an Uber or buying something off Amazon.

“It’s time to turn up the discipline, the capacity, the way we partner and do the actual work,” said Meriah Garrett, the bank’s chief design officer. “A big part of that is hiring. The Austin market is to really able to scale up at pace… there’s a tremendous local talent pool.”

Among U.S. banks, USAA has a reputation for innovation. It was one of the first banks to get into mobile check deposit and online banking, for instance. It chose to locate its design operations in Austin, a tech hotbed, versus its home base in sleepy San Antonio.

The studio looks like a modern office, but with a lot of collaboration spaces. There are no office cubes, but a lot of stand desks. 

“Designers are a little bit obsessed with vertical working space and being able to ‘externalize,’” Garrett said, whether it comes in the form of work sketches, Post-Its scribbled with research quotes and findings, or marking up work in red pen.

In banking, the focus on design and customers’ digital experiences came recently, with the rise of financial technology and the growth of the mobile channel. Many banks have invested more heavily in design in the last two years – take Chase, which opened new Manhattan headquarters for its digital team almost a year ago – but it can take years to see a real impact, Garrett said.

The reality of user experience design is businesses and executives don’t experience the brand the way customers do and as a result, all this work around customer experience falls short. For example, people in finance treat finance like it’s a well known entity, Garrett said. They know it’s been around for years an years, understand the vehicles, mechanisms and why to choose one account over another.

“In reality, most people are operating their regular lives and finance happens to be a part of it,” she said. “One of the things that has really struck me is how much people are missing the 101. That is a tremendous weight for design practice at USAA, an opportunity to change conversation and emotion we all have about money.”

To drive that conversation, USAA is using new technologies and different types of artificial intelligence, but Garrett said making sure it’s the right conversation often comes down to the designers and team members themselves – the humans behind the products.

The bank doesn’t have a universal measurement for impact, Garrett said, and that’s something that’s challenging the whole industry. She sees it as an opportunity to really identify or detail a given customer experience in a way that gives insight and understanding to the designers. She also said she tries to avoid hard measures like numbers or clicks.

“You have to do detailed visibility testing but also understand emotions that bring someone to an experience. 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,” she said.

Appropriateness is the key design principle.

“It comes down to how you apply things appropriately… That drives me to why we have to have really good people. What keeps me up right now is hiring – hiring quality and pace and making sure we grow the right talent at USAA in order to be able to fulfill on this vision.”

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